In a family of readers, I have always been the least well-read. I consumed a lot of fiction as a student, but I don’t read as many books as I’d like anymore. Perhaps it’s because I spend my whole day reading and re-reading stories as I edit them, then reading dozens of news stories on websites around the world to stay current and get ideas for Folio Weekly.
My mother is a voracious reader. My father is, too. No one reads as much as my husband — you almost never see him without a book or, more recently, the Kindle Fire I gave him last Christmas.
I attribute much of my daughter’s advanced reading skills to him. She has been acutely interested in reading since she was 1, when she could recite her favorite books word-for-word before she could even read those words. Recently, she has become enamored of the Magic Tree House series. These “chapter books,” as she likes to call them, follow the adventures of Annie and Jack as they travel through time to learn firsthand about the history written in books.
In my previous job, I rarely got home early enough to read bedtime stories with my daughter, making me keenly jealous of my husband and parents who routinely did this with her. Now I’m home most nights to read with her, my jaw gaping as she speeds through the words with almost no hesitation. I’m awestruck with a sense of pride, amazement and gratitude.
How many kids in her class, her school or her school system enjoy those same advantages? Two parents with college educations and good jobs that allow them the time to spend reading with her, a house full of books and digital devices at her disposal, extended family members actively involved in her education, teachers who recognize her skills. It’s the best-case scenario. But that’s far from the case for many students out there.
More than 40 percent of Florida’s public school students cannot read at minimally proficient levels, according to the latest FCAT scores. Those children are much more likely to drop out of high school. Students must score a Level 3 or above in reading to be considered performing at a satisfactory, proficient or advanced level. In Duval County, between 45 and 58 percent score a 3 or above, depending on the grade level. In St. Johns County, those percentages are in the 70s. In Clay and Nassau counties, it’s the 60s. None of these percentages is good.
Jacksonville ranked 52 out of 75 cities in literacy in 2011, according to the annual assessment by Central Connecticut State University. The highest Jacksonville has ranked in the last seven years is 44.5.
Florida is one of the nation’s three worst states in school funding equity, according to a 2009 ranking by the Educational Law Center and Rutgers University. The inequities are connected to concentrated poverty areas in Florida, Missouri and North Carolina, meaning they simply do not receive the resources they need.
Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Public Library — an essential no-cost resource to help children’s literacy — has seen more cuts in materials and loss of hours.
My daughter’s teachers recognized her reading abilities from an early age and worked to challenge her. Last year, they sent my first-grader to a second-grade class for reading. She took pride in checking off each item on the reading list after tackling the book-in-the-bag her teacher sent home with her every day.
But what about the kids who are struggling? There have been some programs aimed at helping.
In Mayor John Peyton’s Book Club, all 4-year-old Duval County pre-kindergarteners were eligible to receive a bookbag filled with reading tools and a series of Jacksonville-themed books.
Duval County Public Schools launched Read It Forward Jax! (duvalschools.org/readitforwardjax) last year. Through donations from organizations and individuals, it raised $76,000 to purchase a total of 130 classroom libraries and 27,000 books to distribute to 16 schools throughout the district. DCPS also trained more than 260 volunteers to work with students on key reading strategies and comprehension skills. The program has held multiple school events, produced various TV and radio ads to engage the community in reading, provided backpacks and tools to students in need and developed brochures with tips for parents to help improve literacy skills.
Recently, The Children’s Movement of Florida (childrensmovementflorida.org) launched ReadingPals, a 3-year initiative to recruit, train and deploy volunteer “reading pals” in 10 Florida regions, including Duval County. It will focus on improving the reading abilities of students from pre-kindergarten to third grade in lower-performing schools. Volunteers will dedicate an hour a week (for at least 25 weeks) to read in individual or small group settings.
Too many kids can’t read at their grade level. And no single program can fix it. It’s going to take every parent recognizing the importance of reading. And every lawmaker. And everyone else.