Wednesday afternoon’s lunch gathering of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance was heavier than most — but it wasn’t the grilled chicken salad weighing down the roughly 80 business leaders gathered at the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club.
It was sobering data about the reading ability of children in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Between the two, 40 percent of third graders are not able to read at grade level. In Sarasota, 29 percent of third graders were not at grade level in this year’s state tests, and in Manatee 50 percent were not on grade level.
“We pride ourselves in being No. 1 in everything we can be No. 1 in,” said Kim French, vice president of Willis Smith Construction, and the incoming chairman of the alliance. “To have those statistics is just unacceptable.”
Representatives from several nonprofits shared the statistics, but they also highlighted efforts of local agencies to reverse the trend.
Debra Jacobs, the president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation, Beth Duda, the director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-level Reading, and United Way of Manatee chief operating officer Bronwyn Beightol each shared ways their entities were helping students and encouraged business leaders to get involved.
Barbara Jones, a certified public accountant with Kerkering, Barberio & Co., said she didn’t think most people in the business community were aware of the problem.
“Every single time I hear those stats, it hits me hard,” Jones said.
The third-grade reading levels are key metrics because students are learning to read until then, Jacobs said. By fourth grade, students are using their reading skills to learn about all other subjects.
“If you are in fourth grade (and can’t read), you are looking around the class going, ‘Uh-oh, I’m not part of it anymore. I’m out,’ ” Jacobs said. “And that’s a bad trajectory for your life.”
Duda explained some of the implications of that trajectory — outcomes that included a higher likelihood of incarceration and unemployment.
“If we want to make our children college and career ready, paying attention to their early years — zero to third grade — is going to pay off big for us,” Duda said.
The construction industry was seeing the impact of so many students who can’t read at grade-level entering the work force, even in manual labor positions.
“You get to the point where you don’t have quality employees, and you start losing the numbers,” French said. “There is a real shortage of skilled laborers out there.”
Beightol encouraged the attendees to either give, volunteer or advocate, and to use their businesses as tools to address the issue. Several speakers highlighted efforts made by the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, which has partnered with Manatee Schools to host a reading program three days a week throughout June.
“If we can change ourselves, the tendencies in the world will also change,” Beightol said, quoting Mahatma Gandhi. “I find that really powerful as we talk about how we engage in this moral imperative.”