‘Read Charlotte’ wants to double the percentage of children reading proficiently

A $5.5 million community-wide reading initiative unveiled Tuesday hopes to double the number of third-grade students reading on grade level over the next decade.

Known as Read Charlotte, the program will bring together some of the city’s largest companies and philanthropic organizations to steer money and services around the common goal.

They’ll recruit community members to brainstorm ideas on how to help children from birth to the school house. Then they’ll teach parents, teachers and day care centers about the best ways to support children as they learn to read.

By 2025, Read Charlotte hopes that more than 80 percent of third-graders will rank as proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, up from 40 percent today.

“That kind of gain in this amount of time would be unheard of,” said Johanna Anderson, executive director of the Belk Foundation. “But a lot of research and interesting developments over the past few years ... show it can be done.”

The project has been in the works for about a year. Organizers have raised $4.6 million so far.

Their efforts coincide with a renewed focus on reading in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Newly installed Superintendent Ann Clark often describes literacy as the district’s “north star.” School board members got their first peek at Read Charlotte’s plans last week and voiced their support. CMS will donate some staff time to the project, and Clark will be on its governing board.

“For me, the alignment of the entire community around that ‘north star’ is thrilling,” Clark said. She said her recommended budget for the district this year will include a significant investment in literacy. Read Charlotte’s resources will be a good complement, she said, though the governing board hasn’t met to discuss specifics.

The project also comes as third-grade literacy is of particular importance. The North Carolina “ Read to Achieve” program, approved by the state legislature in 2012, aims for students to be at grade-level before being promoted to fourth grade. Third grade is commonly viewed as the year where children move from learning to read to using reading skills to learn in other subjects.

But what Read Charlotte hopes to do goes beyond school-age children. Leaders also said they’ll have a particular focus on the “hand-off” between pre-kindergarten programs and the public school system.

“You don’t wake up the beginning of third grade and realize you have a reading problem,” Anderson said. “It starts right at birth.”

Hiring a staff

The Belk Foundation has taken a leading role in organizing the project, and they describe it as a public-private partnership.

Foundation For The Carolinas will handle the money, and Read Charlotte’s offices will be housed within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library main location.

Organizers will hire an executive director and two other staff members, a program director and assistant. They’ll crunch numbers from CMS, study research both local and national, and survey reading programs across the country.

The goal is to come up with ideas and best practices that can be shared among families and groups that work with children. The initiative won’t provide services itself, but will bolster existing entities serving children. The hope is to help direct millions of dollars more to where they can be most effective.

“The whole community will have this information,” said Katherine Morris, chairwoman of the Belk Foundation’s board. “They want to know. I think they’re willing to do what it takes if they know exactly.”

Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said organizers will focus on engagement and getting support from parents of all income levels.

The county already funds a number of organizations that focus on reading. Read Charlotte will influence how the board doles out grants and how the county spends money in its own departments, Fuller said.

“The benefit of this is we can say, ‘We’re already spending however many millions of dollars we spend. Let’s do it consistent with what other people are doing based on best practices, based on things that actually work,’ ” he said.