Among our earliest joys in life was reading. We still remember the first book read to us by our mothers — for one of us Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, for the other The Little Engine That Could.
To watch as a child learns to read is one of life's special moments. Reading is the foundation of success in life. Sadly, for far too many children, their lives are ones where books are seldom present, reading does not take place and that strong foundation is never laid.
If you look at our state's most recent FCAT scores, 44 percent of public school third-grade students (and 43 and 44 percent in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, respectively) cannot read at grade level. Meanwhile, we know that a child not reading at grade level by the end of third grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school. How alarming.
For most children, third grade is a major transition year. It's when children should no longer be "learning to read," but rather "reading to learn." In so many ways, a child's ability to read at grade level by third grade is predicated upon the basic fundamentals: Caring and knowledgeable parents, high-quality early learning environments and access to medical care and developmental screenings.
Sadly, hundreds of thousands of children in Florida are deprived of the very basics necessary to be "school-ready" and, therefore, start school behind — and, so very often, fall further behind. The wisest possible investment in genuine public education reform would mean far greater investments early and up-front in children's lives.
Now, in an effort to ensure that thousands of more children have the bright future that they deserve, United Way and the Children's Movement of Florida are launching Reading Pals — a three-year early literacy initiative — in 10 Florida regions (among them Hillsborough and Pinellas counties). Made possible by a three-year, $3 million private grant, thousands of volunteer "reading pals" will be trained by local United Ways, screened and deployed into voluntary prekindergarten, kindergarten, first-, second- and third-grade classrooms across Florida.
Because research tells us that real results come only from real time and real commitments, volunteers will be working in individual or small group settings with the same child or children for an hour each week for no fewer than 25 weeks. A child — identified based on the level of need — will work with his or her "reading pal" throughout the year, receive books that will be used to begin home libraries, and receive pre- and post-assessments to measure the gains.
In just these past several weeks, more than a thousand Floridians have signed up to become "reading pals" — and we hope to sign up a thousand more by the start of the program. But to be quite straightforward, creating a "reading program" is not something new or unique. What is "unique" is the creating of a real community conversation around literacy — and a working together of local partners that allows each of us to begin to look at how we truly address the issue of literacy in this community. Those partnerships and collaborations can bring real change — and real results.
As a new school year gets under way, let us not forget that the very future of Florida rests on our ability to raise a generation of children — a workforce — that can compete in an ever more complex and global economy. We cannot afford to let matters stand where they are, but rather must work toward what could be. There seems to us nothing more "American" than ensuring that every child has the chance to succeed in both school and in life. At the very core of that is the ability to read — and loving to do so throughout all of life.
Dave Lawrence of Miami is the chair of the Children's Movement of Florida. Carol Barnett of Lakeland is the vice chair of the Children's Movement and the president of Publix Super Market Charities. Carol and her husband Barney are giving $3 million to launch Reading Pals.