This is an important figure to consider as students start their new year on Monday: Almost half of third graders in Pitt County Schools are not able to read at grade level.
That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 children who should be coming into their own in the wonderful world of books. It is a time when stories begin to introduce young readers to complex thinking, push them to bring their own imagination to the page and put them on the path to mastering the comprehension skills they need to succeed in life.
Think of the tales that can be read. Remember Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and the terrific stories of Roald Dahl. There are more modern titles, too, like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the entire Capt. Underpants series. Some are serious, some are sweet, some silly, but all are a basic ingredient of a rounded education that helps students excel as well in subjects ranging from science and math to citizenship.
Anyone getting ready to jump on the school system for failing our children needs to stop. The problem here, like most challenges faced by our schools, lies at home. According to the Early Literacy Coalition of Eastern North Carolina, about half the children who come into the school system in kindergarten are largely strangers to books — a figure that closely corresponds to proficiency levels in third grade.
At a workshop Friday morning, about 40 community leaders gathered to review and brainstorm ways to address the problem. It was the first in a series of discussions that will lead to the coalition’s participation in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national effort to have all children reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Jennifer Christensen, a speech language pathologist and one of the coalition’s organizers, said the group wants to create a culture in which reading to children from birth is automatic.
Partnering with the United Way of Pitt County, the coalition already has made great strides in creating that culture. Over the last year, its Books From Birth effort has enrolled more than 4,300 children from birth to age 5 in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program, which sends families age-appropriate books every month. That’s more than one third of the children under 5 in Pitt County.
The coalition and the United Way promote the effort, raise funds to pay for the books and work with parents to encourage them to read to their children and teach them the skills they need to be successful kindergartners.
ECU will be studying the program’s impact over the next several years, but we suspect that far fewer children will be strangers to books when they enter kindergarten because of it, and that will translate into far fewer than 900 students who can’t read at proficiency in the third grade.
Community support for the program has been strong, but we believe its impact will only grow as the support for the coalition grows. The dividends of a literate community will reach well beyond the classroom.