Campaign aims to improve third-grade literacy


NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Supporters of a campaign to improve literacy in Arkansas said Tuesday their goal is for all Arkansas children to be reading at grade level by the end of third grade by 2020.

The Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families launched their campaign with the release of a report titled “The Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading: A Call to Action.”

The report ranks Arkansas 36th in the nation in fourth grade reading proficiency. Benchmark tests from 2011 show that 76 percent of Arkansas third-graders could read proficiently.

The report acknowledges that reading proficiency among third-graders in the state has improved steadily over the past six years and that the achievement gap between ethnic groups has narrowed.

“However, there are still too many children who do not read proficiently — 39 percent of black children, 29 percent of Hispanic children and 18 percent of white children,” the report states.

Sherece West, president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, said Tuesday that close to 12,000 Arkansas students failed to graduate from high school last year, largely because of reading problems.

Full proficiency among third-graders by 2020 “sounds like a big, audacious goal, but if we don’t start big we’re going to end up small,” West said during a news conference the campaign’s supporters held at the North Little Rock Boys and Girls Club.

First lady Ginger Beebe said one way to improve literacy is through parent and community engagement. She discussed AR Kids Read, a program set to launch this fall in which Central Arkansas residents can volunteer to spend 30 minutes or more per week helping students in Pulaski County schools learn to read.

The materials needed to launch the program in other communities across the state are available at no charge, she said.

“Third-grade reading proficiency is the most important predictor of school success and high school graduation. This is the point where children move from learning to read to reading to learn,” the first lady said.

Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said other actions that would improve third-grade literacy include improving school readiness by expanding early childhood education and increasing access to prenatal care; reducing chronic absence by addressing health care concerns, educating parents about the importance of school attendance and helping families overcome social and economic challenges; and increasing access to summer learning opportunities.

‘We hope that everyone in Arkansas, including our school leaders, our community leaders, policy makers, parents and citizens will get involved in the Arkansas Grade-Level Reading Campaign,” he said.

Ginger Beebe was asked if she was endorsing Huddleston’s call for expansion of the state’s early childhood education program.

“I think so,” she said.

But a spokesman for the Gov. Mike Beebe said later that expanding the Arkansas Better Chance program is not on Beebe’s agenda for the legislative session that starts in January.

“We don’t have the funding for it,” Stacey Hall said. “The program is funded at $111 million per year now. When Gov. Beebe first took office, he increased the funding by $40 million to get to this $111 million.”

Hall said a small portion of the ABC program’s funding comes from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. That funding was scaled back by Congress this year, but Beebe made up the difference by cutting other programs, she said.

“It is a continuing priority of the governor to expand these programs, but it depends on funding availability,” Hall said.