Scarlett Oliver is leading her first-grade class at Jefferson-Edison Elementary School in Davenport through a reading lesson that goes well beyond flash cards.

Tapping her thumb and index finger together to emphasize each sound, she instructs her students to "tap out" the word "sing."

Tapping their thumbs and index fingers together, they recite, "ssss-ing, sing."

In another part of the classroom, a small group of children work on short words they should learn to recognize on sight, such as "it," "on" or "and."

Schools throughout the Quad-Cities are part of a national education trend placing a greater emphasis on developing children's reading skills, with a target of making sure students are reading at grade-level by the time they finish third grade. This is a critical benchmark in a student's academic career, experts say.

Achieve Quad-Cities is creating a program to address the issue locally that will include the involvement of schools, nonprofit agencies, businesses and the community at large, said Scott Crane, a member of the organization's Leadership Cabinet and president of the United Way of the Quad-Cities Area.

"The schools cannot do this by themselves," Crane said. "They need the community to support them."

Achieve Quad-Cities is a group whose leadership includes representatives of the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend, the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, local education leaders and the John Deere Foundation.

The group initially looked at how to reduce local high school dropout rates, while the United Way's Education Council began investigating how to improve reading skills in the lower grade levels, Crane said.

After determining that some of their efforts addressed the same issue, the Education Council is collecting and analyzing data and proposing a community-wide program to Achieve Quad-Cities that it hopes to have in place before the beginning of the next school year.

Scores vary widely

Scores on standard achievement tests taken by third-graders in Iowa and Illinois during the past school year show a wide range of proficiency in local elementary schools.

During the 2012 assessments, 83.55 of third-grade students in the Bettendorf Community School District tested as being proficient in reading, according to the Iowa Department of Education’s Annual Progress Report. In the Pleasant Valley School District, 85.91 percent of third-graders tested as proficient, while in the Davenport Community School District, 67.18 percent of third-graders tested as proficient. The state average in Iowa was 75.78 percent.

In Illinois, 60.6 percent of the third-graders in the Rock Island-Milan School District tested as meeting state standards in reading in the 2012 Illinois School Assessment Test, while 73.9 percent of third-graders tested as meeting state standards in the Moline-Coal Valley district and 72.6 percent in the East Moline district. The state average in Illinois was 76.1 percent.

Although the assessment tests in Iowa and Illinois differ, both are designed to test a student’s ability not only to read, but to comprehend and analyze what they have read.

Reading to learn

Donald Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College-City University of New York, is an expert in the field of grade-level reading. One study he conducted concludes that one in six kids who are not reading at grade level in the third grade drop out of school at a rate four times greater than those who are achieving that standard.

Hernandez said that through the third grade, most schools concentrate on teaching students to read and understand what they are reading.

Beginning in fourth grade, students are expected to use those reading skills to learn other lessons, such as science, math and social studies. Those who are not reading at grade level quickly find themselves falling behind their classmates.

The most common expression of the principle is that before third grade, you learn to read, and after third grade, you read to learn, although one expert calls that a simplification.

Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and managing director of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, called the expression “a simplified version of a complex phenomenon.”

The campaign has identified three primary causes of a child’s inability to read at grade level — inadequate preparedness to start school, poor school attendance and summer learning loss.

A contributing factor to each of those causes is poverty, Smith said.

Smith said 80 percent of children living in poverty are not reading at grade level by the third grade, a circumstance he called “a catastrophe in the making.”

People living in poverty often don’t have the resources to send their children to a quality early childhood education program or summer programs that emphasize education rather than simply providing supervision while parents work.

Poor diet and a lack of access to health care can create attendance problems for school-age children, Smith said.

Link between poverty, reading

The correlation between poverty and grade-level reading can be seen in local schools.

At Jane Addams Elementary School in Moline, where 29.15 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals last year, 81.8 percent of the third-graders tested as meeting state standards in reading.

At Eagle Ridge Elementary in Silvis, where 72.1 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-cost meals last year, 54.5 percent of third-graders tested as meeting state standards in reading.

And at Paul Norton Elementary School in Bettendorf, where 24.2 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals last year, 90.14 percent of the third-grade students tested as being proficient in reading, second in the district only to Herbert Hoover Elementary, where 94.4 percent of the third-graders tested as being proficient.

By contrast, at Jefferson-Edison Elementary School in Davenport, where 97.4 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, 46.03 percent of the third-graders tested as being proficient in reading.

Jefferson-Edison principal Christie Pitts said many of her students come to kindergarten without the base level of skills they need, but the school works hard to get those students up to speed, and they are making progress.

Students are tested regularly and divided into small groups based on their reading ability, where they can get more personalized instruction.

“If you give students the tools they need, it’s amazing what they can accomplish,” Pitts said.

She said she makes it a point to tell parents of her students how critical it is for children to develop reading skills at an early age and about the resources available in the community to assist them.

Mike Oberhaus, superintendent of the Rock Island-Milan School District and a member of both the Achieve Quad-Cities board and the United Way Education Council, said that based on his own experience, there is “definitely a gap in reading based on income.”

According to a survey of local kindergarten teachers conducted by the Education Council, one in six Quad-City kindergarten students is not adequately prepared when he or she starts kindergarten. The number jumps to one in four in low-income neighborhoods.

The survey, in which about 90 percent of local kindergarten teachers participated, asked teachers for their opinions about how prepared their students were to demonstrate skills such as self-regulation, problem-solving, being able to manipulate pencils, crayons and scissors and enjoying “pre-reading” activities such as listening to a story and showing an interest in letters.

Free or reduced-price preschool programs can help close that gap and make low-income children better prepared for kindergarten, Oberhaus said. But he added the programs can work only if they meet the needs of parents.

While many preschool programs for low-income families in Illinois have long waiting lists, Oberhaus said, there were 68 open preschool slots in Davenport earlier this year.

He said sometimes the available slots are not compatible with the needs of low-income families, who may have transportation problems that make it difficult to get the child to school. Other parents need a full-day program rather than a half-day program to avoid having to make child care arrangements for the other half of the day.

Oberhaus said it is critical to reach people who either aren't aware of what skills their children need to be ready for kindergarten or aren't aware of the local resources available to assist them.

"We want to get the word out about what preparedness is and what parents can do to help their kids develop these skills," he said. "Parents are a critical component in the success of a child."

Hernandez said working at the state and national level to improve access to early childhood education opportunities would ensure that more children show up for the first day of kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed.

Smith said it will take a coalition of schools, civic leaders, business leaders and faith leaders to come up with ways communities can reach out to segments of the population who are not aware of the resources necessary to combat the issue or unable to access them.

“Let’s figure out what all of us have to do, and have to do simultaneously, to make it possible for these kids to succeed,” Smith said.