Boosting kids’ reading is focus of new effort

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Early in 2016, a coalition of 31 groups in Wake County staged its third annual book drive and collected 115,000 books.

Known as WAKE Up and Read, the coalition last spring hosted literacy nights for children and parents at 10 elementary schools with the highest percentage of low-income students receiving lunch for free or at a discounted price, and at 20 nearby child-care centers whose children go on to those schools, as well as nine community centers.

The focus of the literacy nights was the importance of helping kids continue to learn during the summer to improve their reading over the summer and avoid an erosion of academic progress they make during the previous school year.

The week after the literacy nights, all the children were able to select 10 books to keep, with their parents reading one book to the children each week over the summer.

“Children who are behind get more behind and so it’s very difficult to catch up,”  says Lisa Finaldi, community engagement leader at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.

For the next three years, the Early Childhood Foundation will be working with WAKE Up and Read and separate coalitions in Chatham, Durham, Johnston and Orange counties that aim to help improve reading proficiency among targeted low-income children so they can read at grade level by the end of third grade.

In those five counties, less than 40 percent of economically disadvantaged students were reading at grade level by the end of third grade last year, compared to nearly 58 percent of all student.

The new effort is being funded over three years with an initial investment of $700,000, including $625,000 from Triangle Community Foundation and at least $25,000 from United Way of the Greater Triangle.

Triangle Community Foundation has agreed to give $50,000 a year to each coalition in Wake, Durham, Chatham and Orange counties, and $25,000 the first year to the Early Childhood Foundation.

United Way has pledged $25,000 the first year to the Early Childhood Foundation, and will fund the Johnston County initiative, although the amount has not been determined, Finaldi says.

WAKE Up and Read is the only coalition that already has a plan for using the money.

The coalitions in Durham, Chatham and Orange counties still are developing their plans, and the Johnston County coalition still is taking shape.

In addition to schools and child-care centers, coalition partners can range from pre-kindergarten programs to faith congregations and businesses.

In Wake County, corporate partners include PNC Bank, Fidelity and Eaton Corp., which provides free warehouse space for sorting donated books.

And as part of a local coalition in Dubuque, Iowa, Finaldi says, a barbershop gives free haircuts to kids who read a book while getting the haircut.

The Early Childhood Foundation is lead agency in North Carolina for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national effort to improve reading proficiency among low-income students by the end of third grade.

Research shows that, in addition to summer learning, improving reading proficiency depends on improving attendance at school and making sure children arrive at kindergarten with the social, emotional and developmental skills to learn, Finaldi says.

The two funders of the new Triangle initiative aim to raise more money to invest in local partnerships over the long term, she says.

“You have to have a coalition,” she says. “Schools or parents cannot solve this problem alone.”

Group aims to boost early childhood development

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — By the year 2020, two in three  jobs in North Carolina are expected to require higher education. Yet in 2015, only 38 percent of fourth-graders in the state — and only 25 percent of fourth graders eligible for lunch that is either free or at a reduced price in school — scored at or above proficiency in reading.

“Third-grade reading is the single greatest predictor of high school graduation and career success,” says Tracy Zimmerman, executive director and co-founder of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation. “Looking at the fact that we have such low reading-proficiency numbers, we will not have the workforce.”

Formed in 2013, the Foundation is working to advance policies and practices to support the best possible development of children from birth to age eight.

Its work has focused on the unglamorous and often tedious process of engaging leaders from a broad range of fields, assembling experts to assess research on early childhood development, getting feedback from the leadership group, and developing metrics to gauge the impact on third-grade reading of policies and practices in the areas of health, family and “high-quality” child care and education.

“This has been a very intentional process,” says Zimmerman.

“Collaboration is hard,” she says. “Our work is really about creating this space, about trust and process and design, but the work is really coming from the people.”

Now, the Foundation is forming three “learning” teams to use metrics a team of experts has developed to determine North Carolina’s status in the areas of health, family and high-quality learning, and to identify early-childhood trends in the state.

Then, the Foundation will create “design” teams to develop strategies and priorities for “what makes the most sense for the state  to be working on,” Zimmerman says.

And with $325,000 from The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, the Foundation is launching a Birth-to-Eight Policy Center to serve as a resource hub for its work.

The Center will examine, screen and synthesize the policies and practices that have shown success in making progress on improving third-grade reading. It also will serve as a resource for and help educate policymakers, business leaders, philanthropists, early childhood professionals, community leaders and others.

Operating with an annual budget of $400,000 and a staff that soon will grow to three people working full-time and one working part-time, the Foundation generates two-third of its funds from North Carolina foundations, and another fourth through contracts and fees — funded mainly with federal dollars — to provide materials and training it has developed to other states.

Those states use the materials and training to try to engage the partners they need to communicate effectively to support public investment in early childhood education.

The remainder of its funds come from corporate sponsorships and individual contributions.

The Foundation aims to help stimulate investment in early childhood education by  “building public will, aligning action around common measures, and advancing policy and practices to support those common measures,” Zimmerman says.

It has provided its materials — such as presentations and sermons — to hundreds of business leaders, clergy and others throughout the state to help them communicate with their networks about the impact of child development on the ability of a community to thrive economically, and to be safe and healthy.

According to a bipartisan poll the Foundation commissioned in 2014, majorities of Democratic, Republican and independent voters in the state support investment in early childhood programs, and 83 percent believe investments in early childhood programs would benefit the state’s economy in the short-term and long-term.

“Now it’s up to policymakers to figure that out to make that investment,” Zimmerman says.

Investment in early learning also is the focus of Mission Readiness, a national group of active and retired military leaders who are targeting the single issue of national security, she says.

“We know from research that during children’s first eight years, their brain is literally forming and the foundation for learning is being built,” she says. “We also know that how the brain is built and how the foundation is formed, is based on the experiences they have and the environments in which they interact.”

For optimal development, “children need health and development on track, they need supported and supportive families and communities, and high-quality birth-to-eight early learning,” Zimmerman says.

“When we do that,” she says, “then we as a society get the best outcomes in education, health and economic well-being for everyone.”

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.”