Youth literacy emerges as critical issue

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — One in three North Carolina third-graders, and four in 10 from low-income households, do not read at grade level.

Typically because their brains get too little stimulation in their earliest months and years, experts say, many children are not ready for school, struggle in the classroom and drop out, with only 80 percent of students in the state graduating from high school after four years.

Those same kids are more likely to end up jobless, homeless, in jail or an emergency room, and on public assistance, experts say.

The Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates 80 million to 90 million adults, or roughly half the workforce, lack the basic education and communications skills needed to get jobs and advance in them, says Susan Perry-Manning, executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.

Awareness of the importance of youth literacy, along with efforts to improve it, are growing throughout the U.S.

Poor academic performance often is rooted in the lack of support for learning that kids get at home, particularly in the first 12 months of their lives, when their brains reach their peak potential for developing cognitive skills as well as the social and emotional skills critical to succeed in school and life, experts say.

“The parent is the child’s first teacher,” says Tracey Greggs, early literacy project coordinator for the Wake Education Partnership. “Research shows the first and best indicator of whether or not a child will be successful in school is the amount of time the parent has with that child.”

By age 3, for example, the vocabularies of children of college-educated parents are two to three times larger than those of children whose parents have not completed high school, a gap that puts kids with smaller vocabularies at a huge disadvantage, Perry-Manning says.

Starting this year, because of a new state law in North Carolina, third graders who cannot read at grade level at the end of the school year will not advance to fourth grade. Kids who fail the test will be able to attend summer sessions to improve their reading and then take the test again.

Also this year, the Wake Education Partnership launched an early childhood initiative to help make sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

The Partnership has held early childhood literacy summits at four schools in Zebulon, Knightdale, Wendell and Rolesville to let parents know about organizations and resources they can use to help their kids learn.

Funded by PNC Bank and AT&T, the initiative next year will host a “family literacy night” at each of the four schools, with parents getting a kit they can take home that will include books they can read with their kids.

The kit also will include materials for activities parents can do with their children before and after they read the books together, as well as a journal parents can keep and submit to teachers, and in return receive gift cards from local merchants based on the number of activities they complete.

Triangle Community Foundation this fall launched a new initiative to strengthen nonprofits in the region that have shown success in helping to improve children’s reading by third grade, particularly nonprofits that work in collaboration.

And the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, formed this summer, initially will work to raise awareness about early childhood development through its First 2000 Days initiative — signifying the time from birth to entering kindergarten — and through public opinion polling, social media, briefings for businesses, and engaging “non-traditional stakeholders” such as law enforcement officials in writing opinion columns for newspapers and speaking out on the issue, Perry-Manning says.

The Foundation will be working in future years to collect and make sense of data on the most effective strategies for improving child development.

It also aims to bring together leaders, experts, educators, parents and others and help foster collaborative statewide and local solutions and investment in helping kids succeed by the end of third grade, says Perry-Manning.

“There is no silver bullet,” she says. “The reason children aren’t successful at the end of third grade is complicated. There are lots of reasons. We know it’s about more than just any one program.”

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