Kansas City becomes a national model in boosting third-grade reading

Kansas City Mayor Sly James has made it a priority during his time in office to read to elementary school students in dozens of classrooms.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James has made it a priority during his time in office to read to elementary school students in dozens of classrooms. File photo

When it comes to children’s ability to read proficiently or beyond by third grade, Mayor Sly James is right to take a half-full view of Kansas City’s progress.

When James started Turn the Page KC in 2011 shortly after becoming mayor, only 33 percent of third-graders in the city’s 15 school districts and many charter schools were reading at or above grade level.

Last year because of Turn the Page KC and groups collaborating to give away books and pair adult volunteers with kids, third-grade reading proficiency in Kansas City jumped to 49 percent.

But from James’ view, that still means that 51 percent of the city’s third-graders are still left behind.

They will continue to struggle in school, face an increased likelihood of dropping out, being underemployed, unemployed, living in poverty, doing time in prison and dying early.

“Third-grade reading is foundational,” James said recently at the Kauffman Foundation, where he and Turn the Page KC received the Pacesetter Award, a national recognition from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Campaign for Grade Level Reading.

The honor was in the four areas representing the most significant barriers to children’s reading proficiency: summer learning, chronic absence, school readiness and community outreach.

Ralph Smith, a senior vice president and managing director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, said Kansas City serves as a national model because of its success and its drive to do more.

“There is something quite special going on here,” Smith said. “We’re learning a lot from you. You’re inspiring thousands of folks in hundreds of communities across the nation.”

Reading proficiency by the end of third grade enables children to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Nationwide, 66 percent of fourth-graders — most in low-income families — are not proficient at reading.

More community muscle must go into boosting reading scores to close the achievement gap.

Smith was right to praise Kansas Citians for making childhood reading a priority. Success for any community lies in a shared ownership for results and a shared accountability to ensure that improvements take place.

Turn the Page KC has had other successes beyond the 50 percent increase in third-grade children reading at grade level:

▪ Chronic absenteeism among children in elementary schools, often because of frequent family moves, has dropped by 4 percent.

▪ Enrollment in summer learning programs in Kansas City is up 400 percent in the last two years.

More is in store to boost children’s reading during the summer. Time away from school without the benefit of reading often means being unprepared to do well academically when classwork resumes in the fall.

Turn the Page KC and its community partners on June 15 will host a summer reading festival for 1,500 Kansas City children from summer learning programs at the Sprint Center. The event will help create an excitement around reading to inspire more children to dive into books this summer.

The sports-related theme is “Kansas City All-Stars.” It’s geared to be fun for children and encourage them to take home books to read. They’ll get to meet the mayor and sports celebrities and become more acquainted with libraries and the arts community.

The goal in Kansas City is to get every child to become the best agent of her and his own success through reading, discovering great places, opportunities and a better future in the pages of books.

Once that excitement for learning is ignited, there’s no going back.