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Learning to read and succeed

Manatee’s decision to join Grade Level campaign is community-driven

Schools and teachers can and should do more to ensure that children learn to read well enough to succeed in — and simply enjoy — life.

The same can be said about individuals, institutions and entire communities.

Successful reading and learning most often result from partnerships — involving parents, educators, and the public and private institutions that help care for kids.

To that end, it’s encouraging that a community-driven effort is endeavoring to make Manatee County part of the Grade Level Reading campaign.

Following months of planning led by the United Way of Manatee County, Manatee Community Foundation and USF Sarasota-Manatee, some 50 local leaders attended a gathering to learn more about the campaign and discuss the factors that enable most children to read adequately by the third grade.

Substantial work remains to both launch and sustain a campaign intended to promote fundamental change, but the initial efforts are promising.

National and local guidance

Fortunately, Manatee does not have to design an initiative from scratch. The respected Annie E. Casey Foundation has been leading a nationwide campaign to promote early-childhood reading and school readiness.

What’s more, neighboring Sarasota County, which is already a Grade Level Reading Campaign community, can offer lessons from its experiences and opportunities for joint initiatives where they make sense.

Both communities will need the latitude to approach different challenges with distinct solutions, but the potential to maximize resources by blending regional approaches with intensely local efforts should not be squandered by parochialism.

Why should communities focus on preparing children to read by the time they complete third grade? The answer is simple: “Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success,” according to the Grade Level Reading Campaign.

“Research shows,” campaign literature adds, “that proficiency in reading by the end of third grade enables students to shift from learning to read to reading to learn, and to master the more complex subject matter they encounter. Most students who fail to reach this critical milestone falter in the later grades.”

Students who falter in the later grades are more susceptible than their peers to crime, poverty, unemployment and underemployment. And they are more likely to continue the cycle when they have children.

Such conditions affect not only innocent children but communities and businesses. That’s why support from local organizations and commercial enterprises is crucial.

During the most recent school year, only 51 percent of third-graders in Manatee’s public schools passed the key reading test — compared with 57 percent statewide and 71 percent in Sarasota County.

Manatee’s percentage is unacceptable and detrimental; the participants in last week’s events recognized as much.

The earlier, the better

The rest of the community must reach the same conclusion and prepare to offer assistance and help more parents and guardians learn how to teach their children to read — before they reach third grade. Of course, the schools must do a better job teaching reading; fortunately, district officials appear eager to work with and support the campaign.

Experiences in Sarasota and other campaign communities have varied but one constant theme has emerged: The earlier that reading and learning begin, the better.

Sarasota and other communities in the network have also learned that flexibility is essential. Best practices tested nationwide are helpful, but assistance must be tailored to the specific needs of children and families in their communities.

Make that our communities.