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Grade-Level Reading Most Important Issue in Region, Leaders Say

Political, business, and education leaders filled the Grand in Downtown Covington Friday to tout a new program that aims to have one-hundred percent of all the region's third-graders reading on grade level by 2020. Newly named President of the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Santa Ono, and Covington businessman Brent Cooper, of C-Forward, offered the keynote speeches in support of Read On.

According to the presenters, cities around the country have recognized the importance of early childhood literacy and the long term impact it has on the economy. To address the issue of third grade reading proficiency on a local basis, Cincinnati’s Strive and the Northern Kentucky Education Council have jointly created a local early childhood reading campaign called “Read On!”.  The co-chairs are Ono and Cooper.  

"This may not be what you expected when you heard that Santa was coming to town," Ono said. "Instead of people asking (Santa Claus), I'd like us to think about what Santa wants for Christmas. I don't know what the real Santa wants but this Santa wants nothing more than to support Read On."

Ono and Cooper were joined by video speeches from the new President of Northern Kentucky University, Geoffrey Mearns, and Covington Mayor Chuck Scheper in support of the program. Numerous local mayors and county leaders, including Cincinnati Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, expressed their support. 

The troubling element identified at the government forum sponsored by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber is that out of 100,000 children in the region from zero to nine years old, a third are living at 200% below the poverty level. That, the leaders said, is a natural barrier to increasing the all-important educational component that third graders should be reading on grade level. It is at that point that a child's future is often determined.

"Third grade reading skills are the biggest indicator of whether a student will go to college," Ono said. The UC president urged those present to get engaged in providing the support necessary to equip all the region's students with the tools they need to reach that benchmark. "It's an incredible period of brain development and it happens only once. We have one shot and we have to do it right."

As for the high number of local children living in poverty, Ono said that they are the priority. "Their futures, their learning is at risk. This is what this day is all about, those thirty-three thousand kids."

Advocate, Cultivate, Participate, Connect

Ono and Cooper laid out the strategy to engage the community and for more people to become involved in helping local children meet the third-grade reading benchmark. The four compoents of the strategy are advocate, cultivate, participate, and connect.

"We need all hands on deck," Cooper said. "We aren't going to wait for a miracle. We're going to roll up our sleeves and get to work." The effort is of particular interest to the business community, Cooper said. "When we survey businesses, they all want the exact same thing. The quality of the workforce is the most important. That's why third grade reading is so important."

Cooper noted that the region is also fighting for a new Brent Spence Bridge and that the business community would like to see some changes to the tax structure, but that third grade reading is just as important to the region's vitality. 

The advocating would come through raising public awareness of the need for goals to increase third grade reading proficiency, reduce absenteeism, improve school readiness, and to increase summer learning opportunities. The cultivation aspect focuses on creating a culture of school attendance and to encourage broad community engagement and sustained civic action. Participation comes through more professionals and other adults to become mentors and coaches. The final piece of the goal puzzle is to connect existing local resources and community stakeholders with schools.

There are plenty of educational success stories at all levels in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, including the increase of 2.5% in third grade reading proficiency over the past five years and a five to eight percent increase in the graduation rate over the same period. Cooper said the goals are for 100% reading proficiency in all local third grade classrooms and an 85% graduation rate. 

"I know I'm preaching to the choir," Cooper said to the room, "but we need our choir to sing together and to sing loudly!"

Written by Michael Monks

Email: [email protected]

PHOTO: Dr. Santa Ono (L) and Brent Cooper/RCN