Printed Sunday, September 14, 2014 By Sara Schweiger TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
WORCESTER — The organizers of a soon-to-kick-off communitywide literacy initiative believe that it takes a village — a city, in this case — to most effectively put the spotlight on the importance of daily reading.
"20 minutes, every child, every day" is the motto of the new Worcester: The City That Reads campaign, which shares its name with a long-running book drive started by School Committee member John Monfredo. The campaign builds on his and countless others' efforts in the community to engage parents and children in this daily habit, and to bring awareness to the ideas espoused by the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which uses research that shows reading proficiency by third grade is a predictor of academic success and, ultimately, high school graduation.
"The country right now is focusing on literacy," said Patty Eppinger, incoming chairwoman of the Worcester Education Collaborative, which is taking the lead on the new campaign. "It's one of the most important issues we face here in the city," where 66 percent of third-graders were not reading proficiently by the end of school last year (based on spring 2013 MCAS reading scores). Nationally, that number is about 67 percent.
Partners sharing in Worcester: The City That reads include The Hanover Insurance Group, United Way of Central Massachusetts, Worcester Public Library, Worcester Public Schools, the city of Worcester, the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, Worcester Community Action Council, Edward Street Child Services, the Worcester Historical Museum and the Citywide Parent Planning Advisory Council.
The long-talked-about idea of joining various literacy efforts in the city gained momentum during a quarterly Education Roundtable hosted by the WEC in May.
At that meeting, "people brainstormed all of the organizations in the city that touch the lives of children in the 0-8 age category," Ms. Eppinger said.
Erin Dobson, principal of Tatnuck Magnet School, talked about a book she'd read called "The 90 Percent Reading Goal." The book looks at a school district in Washington state that organized a community campaign with the goal of having 90 percent of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade.
"The title caught my eye, because that's what we need to do in Worcester," Ms. Dobson said.
Several people at the roundtable decided to form a book club, with "The 90 Percent Reading Goal" as the first book.
"At our first meeting, we decided that it would be more productive to figure out how to replicate their (Washington's) program for Worcester, rather than simply discuss the merits of the book," Ms. Eppinger said.
She, Alexandra Montgomery from Hanover, WEC Executive Director Jennifer Davis Carey and WEC Programming Director Margaret Leroux became the leaders of an organizing committee.
Jen Luisa, vice president of community relations at The Hanover Insurance Group, which has been involved in several local literacy initiatives, explained that her company is offering business expertise and marketing resources for Worcester: The City That Reads.
"Using that name made the most sense," she said on the decision to use the title of Mr. Monfredo's book drive. "That one is very well known, and promotes all of us getting together to promote reading 20 minutes a day."
A 2010 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation examines the link between third grade reading level, poverty and high school graduation.
The report, which asserts that a critical transition takes place during elementary school — from learning to read in third grade to reading to learn in fourth grade — cites research from the University of Chicago that students who were at or above grade level in third grade graduate from high school and attend college at higher rates than their peers who were below grade level.
After accounting for myriad factors that affect learning (race, gender, family status), researchers found that third-grade reading is a significant predictor of eighth-grade reading achievement, which in turn predicts ninth grade course performance, which ultimately predicts graduation and college. The researchers concluded that struggling readers need support as early as possible.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that pediatricians and policy makers promote reading aloud to children daily, beginning in infancy.
"Children who are exposed to fewer words, fewer books, start off school so much further behind," Ms. Eppinger said.
Research has also shown that a student who reads for 20 minutes a day, five days a week will score, on average, in the 90th percentile on standardized tests, while one who reads for five minutes a day will score in the 50th percentile.
Ms. Erin Dobson has already made the "20 minutes a day" message part of life at Tatnuck Magnet.
For example, she said, "When I send a ConnectED message to parents, I say at the end, 'Remember the most important 20 minutes a day is to read to your child. Read to succeed!' "
She acknowledged that in today's time-crunched society, parent-child reading time can fall by wayside.
"The first thing that seems to go is the reading 20 minutes — even for folks who know it's important."
But she said she's been gratified to see her students enthusiastic about daily reading.
"I've had kids high-fiving me in the hallways because they're so excited to tell me they read 20 minutes the night before," she said.
"The district is excited to participate in this campaign," said Marco Rodrigues, chief academic officer for Worcester Public Schools. "We recognize that there is a greater picture when it comes to promoting awareness of early childhood literacy.
"More critically, there is a great need to expose children ages 0-5 to reading. Unfortunately, every year we encounter too many students who were unexposed to a literacy-rich environment prior to entering our schools. We need to change this picture, and this campaign should give us a strong starting point."
Mr. Rodrigues cautioned that MCAS scores are only one measure of reading proficiency. "We have other state and district assessments that we routinely analyze to create a complete composite of our students' reading performance," he said. "We rely on these indicators to guide our actions toward targeted academic interventions and resource distribution."
A kickoff for Worcester: The City That Reads is planned at the Worcester Public Library o Oct. 3 in conjunction with World Smile Day.
A welcome rally will be held outdoors on the plaza at 8:45 a.m., with activities inside throughout the day. Activities also are also being planned at sites throughout the city, including each elementary school.
Beyond that, Ms. Eppinger hopes the committee can offer something every other month. Both she and Mr. Monfredo made clear they want to see Worcester: The City That Reads continue for the long term.
"We can't let it die on Oct. 3," Mr. Monfredo said.
For now, he is basking in the excitement of seeing his dream of a community literacy campaign come to fruition.
"We continue to move forward on this, which pleases me to the Nth degree."
Email Sara Schweiger at Sara.Schweiger@telegram.com. Follow her on Twitter @SschweigerTG.