By Ryan McKinnon
Education is like baseball — it’s a statistician’s dream.
Per pupil funding, enrollment figures, teacher evaluation ratings — all of it can be charted, graphed and analyzed, either creating a clearer picture of school quality or drowning the truth in an ocean of figures.
But, even with all the data available, education researchers often point to one metric that is the best indicator of whether a student grows up to be a graduate high school or a high school dropout: third-grade reading proficiency.
“Before third grade a child is learning to read,” said Beth Duda, CEO of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading. “After third grade, that child is reading to learn.”
That is why Duda and other leaders of the Suncoast Campaign say they are so focused on boosting third-grade reading levels in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
On Thursday the Suncoast Campaign held its annual community breakfast at Michael’s On East in Sarasota. The breakfast brought together hundreds of community and education leaders from Manatee and Sarasota to celebrate this year’s success and to look to future challenges.
“I want us to remember that progress comes in little steps, and we are making them,” Patterson Foundation CEO Debra Jacobs said. The Patterson Foundation is one of the Suncoast Campaign’s partners.
Both Manatee and Sarasota improved incrementally in the number of third-graders reading proficiently this year, with 3 percent gains over last year; 51 percent of Manatee’s third-graders are on grade level, and 71 percent in Sarasota.
While Jacobs praised the progress made by the “possibilitarians and passionaries” in the room, she said the number of children still not at grade level was both “not acceptable and not believable.”
The campaign has targeted school attendance, school readiness, summer learning, child health and parental support as being vital to improving child literacy rates. This has led to several initiatives in the region in the past year, including Reach Out and Read, which provides books for pediatricians to “prescribe” to their young patients, a dental sealant program for children in Sarasota, attendance promotion initiatives, summer reading rooms and partnerships with community organizations focusing on child health and literacy.
Yolie Flores, chief program officer with the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, challenged leaders to collaborate to raise childhood literacy rates.
“Even if it means you’ve got to work with the person who did not say something kind to you,” Flores said. “If we truly believe that kids deserve a more hopeful future in this nation, then we the adults need to behave differently.”
Sarasota County School superintendent Todd Bowden and Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene sat next to each other at the front table. The two districts have partnered with the campaign, and Greene said Flores’ challenge to collaborate resonated.
“Manatee has almost twice as many students of poverty as Sarasota does, but that’s the whole ego thing we have to leave,” Greene said. “Even though Sarasota doesn’t have the same issues that Manatee has, we have to be willing to work together and share strategies.”
Bowden said the collaboration was evident just by looking around the room, filled with representatives from both school district, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, the Manatee Community Foundation, the Patterson Foundation, United Way Suncoast, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and other community organizations.
“It’s nice to be surrounded by people who have the same objectives that you do,” Bowden said. “That’s the starting point. Take moments like these to say we are headed in the right direction, and you enjoy that, and then you’ve got to get right back to work.”
Several leaders spoke to the importance of not judging the people they were trying to help. Flores encouraged the community partners to not let cultural differences get in the way.
“It may not look like how we would rear that child, but nobody loves their children more than a parent,” Flores said.
After the breakfast Jacobs said the literacy advocacy community needed to listen to the lower-income communities they serve to ensure the programs they offer are the ones people need and want.
“It takes time, patience and ears,” Jacobs said. “A lot of ears.”
Greene emphasized the need for patience. In an era of instant results, staying the path is crucial for long-term success.
“We all want something to happen magnificent right now,” Greene said. “But we have to continue to do magnificent work and in the end we will see major progress for our students.”