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Unique collaboration promotes critical skill: reading by end of third grade

Lee Family
Photo by Joe Nathan
Lue Lee participates in a reading program with his children, Mina, Patricia and Macy.
Joe Nathan
centerforschoolchange.org
Joe Nathan

The Lee family, shown above at St. Paul City Charter School, represents more than 1,200 families in Minneapolis and St. Paul who have been participating in a unique collaboration to promote reading. Several district and charter public schools and community centers in “the Cities” joined with Target and the Center for School Change to promote one of the things that research says is most important for school success: helping youngsters develop strong reading skills by the end of third grade.

Why is reading a priority? A report by professor Donald J. Hernandez of Hunter College and City University of New York that studied almost 4,000 people, helps illustrate the connection between dropping out of high school and failing to be a strong reader by the end of the third grade.

Results from Hernandez’s survey include:

  • “One in six children who are not reading proficiency in third grade fail to graduate from high school on time: four times the rate for children with proficient third-grade reading skills. Sixteen percent of those who are not reading well by the end the third grade, and 23 per cent of those who don’t reach the basic level by the end of the third grade, do not graduate from high school. ... This compares to just four percent of those reading well by the end of third grade.
  • “Children who have lived in poverty and are not reading proficiently in third grade are about three times more likely to dropout or fail to graduate from high school than those who have never been poor.”

This report, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, examined records from the time 3,975 people were in elementary school through the time they should have graduated from high school. The study is available here.

A research summary published in Science Daily explained the value of families reading to their children: “Young children whose parents read aloud to them have better language and literacy skills when they go to school. Children who have been read aloud to are also more likely to develop a love of reading, which can be even more important than the head start in language and literacy.”

Moreover, “A Child Becomes a Reader,” a report for the federal National Institute for Literacy, pointed out, “… researchers have told us something very important. Learning to read and write can start at home, long before children go to school. Children can start down the road to becoming readers from the day they are born.”

Building on this research, more than 1,200 Twin Cities families of young children have received encouragement, assistance and books through this community collaboration.  Through the company’s commitment to give $1 billion for education by 2015, Target provided books to participating families and helped pay for food. Several educators told CSC that this was the first time any organization had given them funds to give books to families.

But this was not just a “book give-away.” The schools, and in some cases the Center for School Change, provided workshops for families receiving the books. The workshops explained why it’s important for families to read with and to their young children and how families can select appropriate books to read with their youngsters.

Educators and parents strongly supported this partnership. Karen Wells, a Minneapolis district principal whose Anishinabe Academy participated in this partnership, wrote, “It meant so much to the parents and students to know that there are special people like yourselves that are willing to make a difference.”

Here’s how some of the parents reacted on anonymous surveys given after the workshop and book distribution:

  • “This meeting affirms some things I’ve been thinking. ... I see why reading regularly with our kid is a great idea.”
  • “My son is very artistic. This workshop made me think about combining art & reading.”
  • “We received great information about six skills every family should know."
  • “Very helpful information about encouragement and correction.”
  • “This was really good!”
  • “This makes the kids feel really important.  It makes them feel that someone cares.”  “Thank you, Target.”

Participating schools include:

  • Minneapolis: Minneapolis District Schools Anishinabe, Elizabeth Hall, Emerson Spanish Immersion, and Anne Sullivan, plus the Brian Coyle Center
  • St. Paul: Neighborhood House Community Center, two St. Paul Public Schools City-Wide Latino Family Recognition Nights, Phalen Lake Hmong Immersion School, and St. Paul charter schools Community of Peace Academy, Academic Cesar Chavez and St. Paul City Charter School.

Dr. Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University has found over more than 25 years that the best predictor of family involvement is not the income, race or marital status of a family.  The single best predictor of family involvement is what the school does to promote it.  We see this kind of collaboration as part of an overall strategy to ensure strong reading skills by the end of third grade.

Bondo Nyembwe, St. Paul City Charter School's principal, joined his Minneapolis  colleague, Wells, in celebrating the effort.  He wrote, “We had a great turnout from our parents, guardians and students.” He praised the educator, corporate and community collaboration, concluding, “You have shown what it takes to lead the movement forward.”

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change.  The Center worked in partnership with Target and other organizations on the project described in this column.

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