Nan Austin

On Campus: Third grade a turning point for reading

Middle school students take part in a Zumba workout, a light moment in the Friend to Friend 2014 conference that tackled troubling teen topics under the theme “Turn the Page,” in Modesto on Oct. 7.
Middle school students take part in a Zumba workout, a light moment in the Friend to Friend 2014 conference that tackled troubling teen topics under the theme “Turn the Page,” in Modesto on Oct. 7.

Not every child has someone around who knows how to read a bedtime story, who answers when they speak, or uses complete sentences – in any language. Those are the real have-nots.

Children without a functional vocabulary start their first day at school already way behind, already on track to fail. They are overwhelmingly poor, though not every family scrimping from tiny, iffy paycheck to paycheck has kids in that basket.

Stanislaus Community Foundation President Marian Kaanon started school in America at age 7 as a low-income immigrant who spoke no English. By high school, she was winning speech and debate competitions. Her success she credits to her parents, she told a Stanislaus County literacy task force at its first meeting two weeks ago.

“They put a library card in my hand and filled our home with books,” Kaanon said.

Now she is part of an effort to have every child reading well by third grade. Stanislaus READS, which stands for Ready, Engaged, Able, Determined Students, is tackling the sad statistic that only 39percent of third-graders test as reading at grade level.

Separately, Modesto City Schools is focusing on the same age group. “We want everybody fluent by third grade. That’s data we’re really watching,” said Ginger Johnson, Modesto City Schools associate superintendent.

Third grade is the measuring point because it is the last grade at which California expects to be teaching reading skills. Starting in fourth grade, the focus shifts to comprehension. The saying goes that kids learn to read, then read to learn. Kids who don’t have reading under their belt before the switch have little chance to catch up.

Among low-income students, 80percent are not ready for the fourth-grade textbooks they load in their backpacks. Those kids are six times less likely to graduate from high school, notes the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

“I was flabbergasted when I realized there are kids who are behind the first day of kindergarten,” Sue Rich, county office assistant superintendent, told the group. “We have to acknowledge there are so many pieces in play in the success of children outside of school.”

The county group is looking for solid numbers on how many kids start off way behind. It’s harder than it sounds when every school district does a different type of assessment of incoming kindergartners, and Stanislaus County has 26 autonomous school districts and charter companies.

Attendance is also on the group’s radar, particularly finding children who are absent for any reason for 20 days or more a year. Only 17percent of those kids read at grade level by third grade.

First the gathering of roughly 500 seventh- and eighth-graders heard from Freedom Writer Manny Scott, who urged them to “Turn the Page,” the conference theme. The event was underwritten by the county office prevention programs department.

Scott’s rags-to-rage-to-redemption story hits more low points than most. He met his inmate father only a few times. He dropped out of school at 14. He considered suicide after his best friend was murdered. It took a stranger to help him see he had worth and a reason to turn the page on a lousy life.

“I committed to building a life better than the one I’d been given,” Scott told the group. He returned to school, where he sat in the back of Erin Gruwell’s English class and became one of her Freedom Writers, who became the inspiration for a book and movie of the same name.

Scott asked his audience of 12- to 14-year-olds to stand as he reeled off different life challenges. About 100 students, 20percent of those present, stood to signify they had at least one alcoholic parent. At least a quarter of the audience stood when asked who had lost a friend or loved one to violence.

He urged the kids to take charge of their own destiny, rewrite their own story and give a hand up to others.

Scott told the kids, “You can get up. You can dust yourself off. You can build the life you want to have. Things might be bad, but I promise you, it could always be worse.”