A survey of teachers that shows a significant number of Quad-City kindergarteners were not ready to start school this fall is a critical first step toward resolving the larger issues of helping more low-income students graduate from high school and break the cycle of poverty, a national reading advocate said Friday.
Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, was in Davenport on Friday on the last stop of a six-city tour of Iowa commemorating the state's selection by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading as one of five "pacesetter" states for its efforts to improve grade-level reading.
Smith said the campaign grew out of an effort to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The three keys for people to break that cycle, Smith said, are finishing high school, getting and keeping a good-paying job and delaying marriage and parenthood until at least the age of 25.
Smith said the most difficult of those tasks for people who grow up in poverty is finishing high school, and a key indicator of success in finishing high school is the ability to read at grade level by the end of third grade.
Educators say that before the third grade, students are learning to read. After third grade, students need those reading skills to have success in other subjects, such as math and science.
A study by Donald Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College-City University of New York, found that students who are not reading at grade level by the time they finish third grade drop out of high school at a rate four times greater than those who are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
Locally, the United Way of the Quad-Cities Area's Education Council developed a survey that was distributed to local kindergarten teachers last fall.
The survey was designed to determine how prepared students were to start kindergarten and asked the teachers to rate their students' preparedness in 10 areas, such as the ability to self-regulate, use problem-solving skills, physically manipulate items such as pencils, crayons and scissors and enjoy “pre-reading” activities such as listening to a story and showing an interest in letters.
The survey was completed by 90 percent of the teachers and represented 3,427 students. The survey showed that in the opinion of their teachers, one in six kindergarten students was not prepared in at least one of the 10 categories covered by the survey, and that number grew to one in four in low-income areas.
"That tells us we have work to do as a community to make sure every child has an opportunity to be prepared," said Mike Oberhaus, superintendent of the Rock Island-Milan School District and a member of both the Achieve Quad-Cities board and co-chairman of the United Way Education Council.
Oberhaus said that as the Education Council builds up a database of survey results in coming years, the information could be used to spot trends and develop programs to address them.
"But we're not going to wait," he said. "We're going to get started right away."
The Education Council is working on developing a community-wide program to promote grade-level reading and will make a recommendation about that program to Achieve Quad-Cities, which is another effort to boost academic success that is led by United Way and the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend.
Smith said the survey is a critical first step because it brings teachers, parents and the community together to address the issue and creates a uniform set of benchmarks for students before they reach kindergarten. The next step is to make sure parents know what those benchmarks are and what resources are available to them to help their children meet them.
"This is the kind of information parents need to know," Smith said. "Sometimes, we forget to tell the parents."
Smith said kindergarten readiness is one of three key components to reading at grade level. Students who are chronically absent from school or suffer "summer learning loss" because they are not engaged in educational activities during the summer also are less likely to be reading at grade level.
Oberhaus said there are resources available to parents who want to know what skills their children need before entering kindergarten and what they can do to help develop them. At the United Way of the Quad-Cities Area website, there are links to information about how parents can help their students develop the skills they need before they enter kindergarten, as well as a link to sign of up for the Imagination Library program, which sends one free book per month to the home of children from birth to age 5.