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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 10/19/2011

More than 150 cities, counties agree to push early literacy

(Updated with new Virginia entry)

Washington D.C., Baltimore and six communities in Virginia are among the more than 150 cities and counties across the country that are pledging to concentrate on early literacy efforts to ensure that children can read by the end of third grade.

The Campaign for Grade Level Reading is a collaborative effort by dozens of funders to make sure that all children, especially those from low-income families who often enter kindergarten already behind, learn to read. Signing onto the campaign are big cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta, and the entire state of Arizona.

This issue is as important as any in public education; kids who don’t read have enormous difficulties later in life. To borrow a famous phrase from the campaign of former president Bill Clinton: It’s the reading, stupid. Schools can buy expensive whiteboards and other gizmos by the truckload, and throw standardized test after test at kids, but if a student can’t read, those reforms aren’t going to help a whole lot, are they?

The percentages of students who leave school without reading proficiently is scary: Children who don’t read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers, and, research shows, children from poor families who don’t read proficiently early are 13 times more likely not to finish high school than good readers who have never lived in poverty.

According to a 2010 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation called “ KIDS COUNT report, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters ,” 53 percent of fourth-graders from low-income families who attend high-poverty schools did not even read at the basic level in the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2009. The number who failed to score at the proficent level was 85 percent.

The pledges from the more than 150 cities and counties have come in the form of an official declaration of intent to apply for the National Civic League’s 2012 All-America City Awards. They are given to the 10 communities that develop the best plans to deal with these three issues:

* School readiness, because too many children, especially from low-income families, start kindergarten already lacking the literacy exposure that their better-off periods have had.

* School attendance, because too many young children are chronically absent from school for a variety of reasons.

* Summer learning loss, because too many children, especially from low-income families, have no access to books and other experiences during the summer and los ground academically during the summer months.

This award program is only one national initiative focused on early literacy. The Obama administration is holding a $500 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge that asks states to compete for a share of the money with early education programs. Wednesday is the deadline for applications.

The cities and counties that have agreed to compete for the All-America City Awards are in 33 states and Washington D.C., and cover 6.1 million schoolchildren. In Virginia, these communities have declared their intention to compete: Fairfax County, Alexandria, Norfolk, Petersburg, Richmond and Roanoke.

Other communities around the country include Miami-Dade, Indianapolis and Mobile.

The All-America City Award does not come with a cash prize, but cities have touted it to attract new businesses, seek higher credit ratings as well as funding from foundations and philanthropic donors. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading will provide assistance to cities to develop their final applications, which are due in March, according to a press release. Finalists will be selected by April, and the winners will be announced in June.


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