By Lisa Williams-Taylor
CEO, Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County
Palm Beach County School Superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa correctly said, “We have a lot of ground to cover” to have at least 75 percent of all third-graders reading on grade level in the next five years. (“Avossa sums up year’s successes, challenges for community leaders,” March 10.) While that seems like a tall mountain to climb, reaching that goal will, indeed, bring Palm Beach County to higher ground.
Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a key predictor of high school graduation. That’s because research shows that third grade is where our children shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” so they’re ready to tackle more complex subjects in later grades. In turn, improved high school graduation rates, which are already climbing, will give more children access to college and skilled careers, bringing all of us more jobs and a thriving and safer community.
The challenge Dr. Avossa highlighted is that the current 52 percent of third-graders reading proficiently masks some very critical gaps. Only 28 percent of African-American males, for example, are at grade level, and 43 percent of Hispanic males. Girls fare a little better: 41 percent of African-American females and 49 percent of Hispanic females are at grade level.
At Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, we trace third-grade reading back to early childhood. We’ve seen that third graders are more likely to be at grade level when they are socially and emotionally ready to enter kindergarten. Our early childhood development programs help prepare children for school by addressing potential delays, supporting parents and caregivers at home, and encouraging families to actively engage with their children – by reading, singing, talking and playing – every day. In fact, we were honored with a Pacesetter Award in 2012 for our school readiness efforts by the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and are still active in the campaign.
But the challenges are daunting. Childhood trauma, community instability, cyclical poverty and stressful family dynamics can set back any child’s readiness for school.
We recognize, and reading scores show, the need for our community to do even more to help reach Dr. Avossa’s bold goal of broad-based reading success – for all our children. With the Council’s continued work in early childhood development focused on healthy births and the most critical early years, and the School Board’s commitment to third-grade reading proficiency, we believe we’re on the right track.