If we close the academic achievement gap, kids and community will reap the rewards

Little boys share a laugh as they hold on to books they are learning to read.
Little boys share a laugh as they hold on to books they are learning to read. unitedwaymiami.org

“We will not rest until we have met the challenges of reaching all children. . . . None must be left behind. (We must work) to “keep the first cracks of the achievement gap from ever forming in the first place.”

Miami –Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

to educators at a back-to-school pep rally

Great evidence and much research supports the superintendent’s words.

A 2013 study by Stanford University researchers found the achievement gap to which the superintendent referred can be seen between children from different socio-economic groups at just 18 months old. By age 3, children from the wealthiest families hear 30 million more words than children from the poorest families. And that directly connects to those children’s later reading skills and general school success.

The achievement gap grows from there. We know that one in three children in Florida arrive in kindergarten not ready to learn. By the time children reach third grade, the achievement gap has widened by 10 percent; that means that more than two in five children are not reading at grade level. By 10th grade, almost 50 percent of children are not reading at grade level.

These early differences in reading ability translate into grave consequences. An Annie E. Casey Foundation study linked reading below grade level in fourth grade to increased high school dropout rates. A Northeastern University study showed that one in 10 American male high school dropouts between 16 and 24 is in prison or juvenile detention.

We can see Florida’s priorities when we see how public funds are budgeted. Florida spends more than $50,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile, but less than $3,000 a year to educate a child in pre-K, and not even $8,000 per child for a year in K-12. A preventive, rather than reactive, approach to state budgeting could save lives — and your tax dollars.

If children’s ability to succeed in school, which we uphold as a force for equity, already is affected before they even meet their kindergarten teacher, we clearly must start earlier.

United Ways across Florida and The Children’s Movement of Florida proudly collaborate in ReadingPals, a volunteer-based literacy initiative with mentors for students from pre-K through third grade. In Miami-Dade, the program focuses only on the pre-K years. The Children’s Movement and United Way launched the initiative six years ago as one path to halting achievement gaps before they begin. United Way works to place volunteers in schools and childcare centers where they read once a week with the same children for the whole school year.

In the past year, ReadingPals engaged 2,288 active volunteers and provided mentoring and reading time for 3,093 children across 24 counties throughout Florida. In Miami-Dade, ReadingPals read with 140 pre-K students and provided each child with 21 take-home books to encourage a love of reading outside the classroom. All students in the Miami-Dade ReadingPals program improved their Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) assessment, showing they are better prepared to enter kindergarten. ReadingPals volunteers see the importance of early education first-hand, and they see the challenges teachers and students face in the classroom. You can sign up to be a ReadingPal at unitedwaymiami.org/readingpals.

Should Florida seriously invest in the early learning years, we would help tens of thousands of Florida’s children, and at the same time make the most prudent use of taxpayer dollars. In so doing, we would see less crime, a stronger workforce and millions of public dollars saved. Help us convince Florida’s elected officials to place investment in early learning in the front row of our state’s spending priorities.

Maria C. Alonso is the president and CEO of United Way of Miami-Dade. David Lawrence Jr. chairs The Children’s Movement of Florida. His autobiography, “A Dedicated Life: Journalism, Justice and a Chance for Every Child,” was just published.

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