BRADENTON -- If you're on track by third grade, you're essentially on track for life.
On Tuesday, a group of local stakeholders came together to brainstorm ways that Manatee County can ensure that third-graders are on that successful track.
The Campaign for Grade Level Reading in Manatee County met for the first time Tuesday inside the auditorium at Manatee Technical Insitute on State Road 70. The campaign is being led by the United Way of Manatee County, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and the Manatee Community Foundation, but aims to pulls from all areas of the community.
On Tuesday, more than 50 community members -- including school district officials and board members -- discussed ongoing initiatives and what gaps the community may still have during the two-hour session.
The grade-level reading campaign is a national collaborative effort by foundations, nonprofits, business leaders and other stakehold
ers to make sure students are reading on grade-level by Grade 3.
"It's one of the biggest indicators of lifelong success," said Dennis Stover, the regional vice chancellor for university advancement.
Launched in 2010, the campaign focuses on five different areas: chronic absence, school readiness, healthy readers, parent/family engagement and summer learning loss. The goal is for the community to increase the proficiency of children from low-income families who are reading on grade-level by 100 percent by 2020.
In the most recent FCAT tests, which will be replaced this year with tests aligned to new standards, 51 percent of Manatee County students passed, scoring a 3 or higher on the reading test. A three is considered proficient by state standards.
Local officials applied to be part of the campaign, and had to submit an initial plan and overview to be accepted. The campaign provides technical support and assistance, but no funds to help local officials. Although they've already submitted an initial plan, officials plugged Tuesday's meeting as the real start of the campaign.
"We had to get something in to launch us, but the plan starts now," Stover said.
As of January 2014, there were 142 communities in 39 states and there are at least 10 grade-level reading communities in the state, including Sarasota.
On Tuesday, the community members split into break-out sessions to discuss how the different areas are currently being addressed and to brainstorm other ways and ideas.
"We want to find out what's going on in our community, in our area," said Marilyn Howard, the executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation.
Summer reading program?
Some members met to discuss ways to keep kids reading and learning during the summer. Christine Culp, who works at the Braden River library as part of the Manatee County Public Library, said the library gets busy during the summer and there are a number of programs for students who are there and read over the summer, but there's a problem accessing children whose parents don't bring them in.
"It's trying to reach the outlying ones who don't come to the library," she said. "We need to get out to those areas more."
In the chronic-absences group, Barbara Harvey, a longtime Manatee County School Board member talked about a grass-roots program, Iron Strengthening Iron, which she said started about 19 years ago. Members meet with at-risk families. Harvey said there's about 110 kids in the program.
"Our goal was to make sure students are in school," Harvey said.
The campaign will directly benefit the Manatee County School District. Superintendent Rick Mills thanked the community members for attending and praised the collaboration, saying collaboration leads to shared resources and shared accountability. Mills noted that 60 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"We all have accountability for the quality of education for our students," he said.
The next steps are to drill down on the data collection, Brown said, through sub-meetings of groups and surveys and to create a database.
"Ultimately, this leads to -- what are the strategies we want to implement or grow? Those strategies will be our plan," Brown said. "Let's create something we can hold up to ourselves and say, 'This is a plan.'"
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.