Doubling up on literacy problem

Charlotte’s leaders have been in the habit lately of announcing audacious goals and making bold promises, and we like it.

Today, following recent vows to end veteran homelessness this year and chronic homelessness by the end of next year, comes another at least as ambitious: Double the percentage of third-graders reading on grade level to 80 percent by 2025.

That would be a remarkable accomplishment, perhaps unique in the nation. It would also go a long way toward helping Charlotte conquer so many other formidable challenges. Read on grade level and you are more likely to graduate from high school. Graduate from high school and you are more likely to pursue further education or get a job. Earn a decent wage and you are more likely to stay off the streets, out of court and out of jail.

What Charlotte, and communities across the United States, are realizing is that an adult’s ultimate path often starts at birth.

“Read Charlotte,” to be announced this morning, brings together businesses, foundations, nonprofits, the city, county and schools to get kids reading on grade level by the end of third grade. That’s a large and pressing problem.

More than two-thirds of N.C. fourth-graders have been unable to read proficiently in recent years. That includes 86 percent of black students and 83 percent of Hispanic students.

Organizers of Read Charlotte say only 40 percent of CMS third-graders read on grade level, as measured by NAEP scores. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is arguably the best national yardstick to measure students’ performance and progress.

Third-grade reading has been found to be an excellent predictor of a student’s future. Those not reading on grade level by then are four times more likely to drop out of school. Poor kids who don’t read well are six times more likely to drop out. The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates that each dropout costs society about $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity.

Read Charlotte’s strategies are still being crafted. But it will bring stakeholders together with funders (including, possibly, taxpayers) to research, communicate and fund best practices. It aims to create a seamless system that educates children starting at birth through preschool and on through third grade.

Potential pitfalls lurk. The governing board, which will help influence where money goes, needs to foster collaboration and efficiency without being too heavy-handed. It needs, for example, to share and cultivate best practices while still being flexible enough to recognize the good work and differing approaches different service providers take.

The expertise, after all, lies with those on the ground working with struggling children. Their know-how can combine with community leaders’ dedication and money to make a dramatic difference. With a deadline of 2025, they can work with kids who haven’t even been born yet. Which is just about what’s needed.