Updated: Apr 5, 2019
By Matt Larson
When children finish the third grade, that’s when they should be capable of reading to learn, as opposed to still learning to read. Studies have shown that kids who are reading at grade level by this time are more likely to graduate high school and be ready for college, yet more than 80% of low-income children struggle to meet that goal. In West Contra Costa County, an average of 1 in 4 third graders are reading at grade level. In some of Richmond’s elementary schools, the average goes as low as 5%.
The West Contra Costa Literacy Coalition is a collective impact group consisting of parent leaders, educators, librarians, service providers, and the WCCUSD. We last met with them shortly after they were established in 2015 by the Richmond Community Foundation (RCF). Since then, the school district has undergone some changes, most notably by hiring a new superintendent. The Coalition’s primary focus has been to increase awareness of the importance of childhood literacy to the community, and to the school district.
“One of the key successes the Coalition has had was really making it clear to the district that early literacy should be a priority,” said RCF’s Chief Operations Officer Stacey Street. Looking at overall graduation statistics and following the continuum up to career development, making sure that these kids are ready for life in general, it must start with early literacy. “It wasn’t a primary focus of the school district, but now they have a community wide campaign, divided into three focus areas, one of which is early literacy which is because of our Literacy Coalition.”
The Coalition has also been providing grants for summer programs to incorporate literacy into their summer schools and camps, and they’ve also had funding to support family literacy celebrations. “There were mini-grants for organizations to have events to encourage parents and teachers to all come together and celebrate literacy,” Street said. They held an event in March at The Shops at Hilltop which was attended by their partners in the school district, shop owners, and authors who would read aloud to kids and engage in literacy-focused games and activities. “We had students and families coming from all over the Bay Area,” she said. “We’re planning on doing these quarterly to build engagement with our providers, the community and the school district.”
Overall, however, early childhood literacy remains a major problem, not just locally, but nationally. It is an ambitious goal to get all of West County’s kids reading at grade level by third grade, and they’re working toward it, but it won’t be easy. “It’s going to take a lot of time, and a lot of partners,” said Literacy Coalition Manager Joni Podschun. “It’s not just race, and it’s not just money and resources that make a difference. There’s some way that we need to change how we’re reaching kids and make sure that we’re doing something different for educational equity, because it’s not happening in our current system—that’s not any one institution’s fault, but it’s something that we have to work on together if we want to see a change.”
It is a communal effort to help get our kids on track, and the Coalition is doing their part to get everyone on board. They plan to build on their events, build on their partners, conduct sessions to engage parents and make sure they have the tools (and the books) to keep their children reading. The groundwork is set for some real changes to be made. If you’d like to join the Coalition, especially if you’re a parent living in West County, Street and Podschun invite you to do so. You can also volunteer with their partners West County READS (westcountyreads.org) and the Read-Aloud Volunteer Program (read-aloud.org). For more information on the Literacy Coalition please visit richmondcf.org or call (510) 234-1200. It takes a village to raise these kids, and the more people that get involved, the better.