Strong reading skills in childhood vital to future; Manatee County poised to join movement

Manatee County is poised to join Sarasota in a national movement to improve reading proficiency among young children, with a community engagement gathering later this month providing the momentum.

The Grade-Level Reading Campaign unites nonprofits, foundations and other interested parties in a collaborative effort to increase the reading skills of the very young up to third-graders. That grade level has proven to be a pivotal indicator of high school graduation and career success.

Education literature shows third grade as the crucial time for students to shift from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," gaining essential comprehension capabilities and mastering more complex material.

The United Way of Manatee County, Manatee Community Foundation, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and a steering committee of 40 members (nonprofits, businesses leaders, county government, economic development, public officials, school district, public library system, etc.) are uniting in this campaign kick-off event on Oct. 21. Anyone interested in joining is welcome to attend.

Poor reading proficiency is particularly acute in Manatee County. During the past school year, almost 4,000 students took the third-grade FCAT 2.0 reading test, and 51 percent passed. While that's up 2 percentage points from the 2012-2013 school year, Manatee remains behind the statewide 57 percent score. In Sarasota County, 71 percent of third-graders passed the test last year as well as the prior year.

The lack of mastery in reading is acute in low-income families, with more than 80 percent of these children missing the third-grade milestone.

Manatee County organizers of the Grade-Level Reading Campaign are focusing on several key areas, among them:

School readiness: Since learning starts in infancy, vocabulary development is critical. As the first and most important teacher, parents are the key to early education -- by talking, reading and interacting with their children. This make a major difference in a child's vocabulary, comprehension and critical thinking skills.

Reading with children, not simply to them, boosts a child's language and literacy, research shows. By kindergarten, these children will be confident learners. The GLRC engages parents on this in several ways.

Plus, by watching a child's health and looking for signs of developmental delays, doctors, care providers and preschool teachers play a vital role in the campaign.

Chronic absence: The GLRC also engages school districts in order to spot poor attendance, which can be an early indication of social, economic and health challenges where community support can help. Good health and development has a tremendous impact on learning skills, and the campaign offers strategies to ensure children from low-income families are thriving from birth into third grade.

Summer learning loss: These months are especially damaging to low-income youngsters, "who lose an average of more than two months in reading achievement in the summer." That impairs progress to third-grade proficiency.

The campaign addresses this loss with programs to engage more children in summer learning opportunities, above and beyond the "punitive and remedial model of summer school" with a blend of arts, sports, technology and more.

The Grade-Level Reading Campaign network already includes more than 150 communities across 39 states, 350 school districts and more than 8 million schoolchildren. We hope Manatee County joins this community investment in the future.

If you go

United Way of Manatee County organizers of the stakeholders' discussion from 3-5 p.m. Oct. 21 want public input and attendance. Interested individuals and organizations can RSVP directly to lwr@uwmc.net or call 941-748-1313. There is also information on the web at www.uwmc.net.

The discussion will take place at Manatee Technical Institute, 6305 State Road 70 East, Bradenton.