Many students in Silicon Valley community not reading by 3rd grade

May 27, 2015

Children sing at event marking efforts to boost student reading proficiency in San Mateo County.

A California county in the heart of Silicon Valley on Wednesday launched an ambitious plan to better prepare preschool-aged students for reading so that they can achieve proficiency by 3rd grade.

In San Mateo County, home to technology company heavyweights such as Oracle and Genentech, 43 percent of 3rd-graders are falling behind in reading, according to standardized test scores. Many of those students are from low-income families that are not part of the tech boom and who often can’t afford to send their children to preschool programs.

Falling behind in reading at an early age is significant because research shows that children who read significantly below grade level by 3rd grade will continue to struggle in school and are at higher risk of dropping out later.

To help close that gap, county leaders launched a campaign – dubbed “The Big Lift” – that officials said will substantially expand preschool programs and curb chronic absenteeism among young students by sending parents text messages that reinforce the importance of their children’s classroom attendance. The plan also includes the creation of “inspiring” educational programs during the summer months that aim to maintain academic gains from preschool through the early grades.

Officials said the campaign, which has the collaborative support of 200 organizations, is among the first in the nation to specifically focus on those goals.

The project is being funded by a voter-approved, half-cent increase in the county’s sales tax rate, private money and federal grants, for a total so far of $28 million. But it will need $50 million a year to sustain all programs at full capacity, county officials said.

On Wednesday, groups involved in the campaign announced that the first grants – totaling $4.3 million – will go to four school districts in the county: Cabrillo Unified in Half Moon Bay, the Jefferson Elementary district in Daly City, South San Francisco Unified and La Honda-Pescadero Unified.

Anne Campbell, superintendent of the San Mateo County Office of Education, said the project began two years ago and relies on the collaboration between county government officials and those from the county’s 23 school districts.

“The local communities let us know what they needed,” Campbell said. Improving reading proficiency among young students is imperative, she added, particularly given that 65 percent of Latino, African-American and Pacific Islander students are not reading proficiently by 3rd grade, according to standardized test scores.

Without improving its students’ reading skills, San Mateo County is “losing the children we need to help us move forward in the knowledge economy,” Campbell said.

Under the plan, school districts will partner with preschools – private and public – and community-based agencies to work toward the goal of ensuring 80 percent of 3rd-graders countywide are reading proficiently.

Elizabeth Schuck, associate superintendent of Cabrillo Unified, said the Half Moon Bay community is home to wealthy tech executives and low-paid migrant workers, many with children who have not attended preschool programs. The county’s grant will make it possible for those children, and other children in the county, to receive two years of preschool.

The grants announced Wednesday will help the Jefferson Elementary district by creating 40 new preschool slots, Superintendent Bernie Vidales said. South San Francisco City Manager Mike Futrell said Genentech, which is based in the city, plans to build a 6,000-square-foot science lab for South San Francisco Unified students.

Key partners in San Mateo County’s “The Big Lift” campaign include First 5 San Mateo County, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and the RAND Corporation.

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