In most major American cities, including our own, most third-graders (between 50 to 80 percent nationwide) cannot read proficiently.
Children who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are far more likely than their peers to drop out of high school and one day end up in prison, on government assistance, or both. This is a national crisis.
As Mayor Sly James often points out, reading proficiency for our children is Kansas City’s greatest economic development priority. We need literate graduates to fill and create jobs and contribute to our quality of life. Students unable to read well in fourth grade begin to struggle with every subject. Not surprisingly, they are four times less likely to finish high school. Today’s jobs demand more. And our children deserve better.
The problem is serious, and it is urgent. But we know what to do about it. Communities across the U.S. have formed coalitions to address this crisis.
In Kansas City, Turn the Page KC is leading the charge. In recognition of our city’s progress, Turn the Page KC recently won national recognition from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Campaign for Grade Level Reading as the Pacesetter Award winner in the four categories that represent the most significant barriers to reading proficiency: summer learning, chronic absence, school readiness and community outreach.
Thanks to strong collaboration between Kansas City Public Schools and several summer program providers, more than 8,000 elementary students now participate in summer reading programs taught by certified teachers with the assistance of full-time reading tutors provided by Turn the Page KC. In three years, participation in summer learning programs in has grown by 400 percent.
In collaboration with local school districts, Turn the Page KC tackles chronic absenteeism (defined as the percentage of kindergarten- through third-grade students who miss more than 18 days of the school year) to identify and intervene on behalf of students who are most at risk of falling behind. Chronic absence among K-3 students in Kansas City has dropped from 14 percent to 10 percent over the last two years.
Although our progress has earned national acclaim, our goal is to reduce chronic absence below 5 percent. Children who aren’t ready for kindergarten are behind before they begin their academic careers.
Research proves that children who attend quality preschool programs are more likely to read at grade level by third grade, graduate from high school, and become more healthy and productive members of society. Every dollar invested in quality preschool education yields an $8 return.
The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has adopted Kindergarten Readiness as one of its Big 5 priorities. Public awareness of this important issue is increasing, and momentum is building.
Collective community action is beginning to turn the page on early learning in Kansas City, and everyone can find an important role to play. Our community needs volunteers to read with struggling students, donate books to children who don’t have them, provide funding for the cause, and spread the word.
Judy Heeter is vice-chairwoman of the Turn the Page KC board of directors. She lives in Kansas City.