Erica Cardenas

Let’s read, Arizona!

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With a new national report showing that children who don’t read well by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, three Arizona foundations are leading a statewide initiative to tackle the underlying issues preventing children, especially low-income children, from learning to read at grade level. 

Helios Education Foundation, Arizona Community Foundation (ACF) and Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust are collaborating with numerous cities and organizations across Arizona who have all joined the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. This national, 10-year initiative is focused on moving the needle on reading proficiency and making early reading an urgent priority. 

Recent studies show that low-income children can lose up to three months of reading comprehension skills due to summer learning loss, when compared to their more affluent peers. 

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By the end of fifth grade, these same students can be as much as three grade levels behind. Studies also show that low-income children may hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their middle-income peers before reaching kindergarten.

Helios, ACF and Piper will convene community stakeholders in a series of statewide meetings, with the results leading to an integrated statewide system that addresses the three main factors preventing students from reading at grade level: inadequate school readiness, school absenteeism and summer learning loss. 

“Helios Education Foundation understands the urgency around grade-level reading and we are working to improve the quality of the early learning environment by providing professional development opportunities for the teachers of children aged birth to 5,” said Karen Ortiz, Helios Education Foundation Vice President and Director of Early Childhood Education. 

“Teacher quality is a critical component to student success, and, in the last four years, we have invested over $10 million into professional development initiatives for early childhood teachers and practitioners with an emphasis on language acquisition and emergent literacy knowledge and practice,” she adds. 

Foundation leaders and members of the collaborative will promote strategies and policies that work to close reading achievement gaps, raise the bar for reading proficiency so that all students are assessed by world-class standards, and ensure that all children have an equitable opportunity to meet those higher standards.

Organizers plan to build on and enhance data collection and other work already done by Arizona stakeholders, such as First Things First, the Arizona Department of Education and the United Way. 

“Recognizing these devastating statistics, the Arizona Community Foundation and our partners are coming together to truly move the needle on early literacy,” said Jim Pitofsky, Arizona Community Foundation Chief Strategy Officer. “It is imperative that we address this forcefully and assure that all young children are able to read well by third grade, the necessary point of passage for students to succeed in later grades.” The state of Arizona joins more than 150 cities, counties and towns across the country taking action and pledging to tackle the grade-level reading crisis through coordinated local efforts. 

The national movement responds to a “call to action” issued by a special Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT report, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. The 2010 report underscored the troubling data on student achievement and poverty: Only 17 percent of low-income children scored proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Half of them hadn’t even mastered basic reading skills.

The National League of Cities, United Way World Wide and other national partners will recognize communities that develop the most comprehensive and sustainable plans to address the three primary barriers to early reading.

Recent studies speak to the importance of early reading skills. Children who aren’t reading at grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school than their reading-proficient peers. If those struggling readers are poor, they are 13 times more likely to be high school dropouts. Arizona’s recently enacted Move on When Reading legislation, mandating the retention of third graders who are not reading at grade level, puts additional pressure on the state to help young readers.

For more information on the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, visit their website at gradelevelreading.net.

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