The county is working on a new program aimed at getting all third-graders at reading level after grappling with a startling statistic — 42 percent of children are not reading proficient by third-grade in a county that’s in the top 1 percent of affluent counties in the United States.
The Big Lift is a San Mateo countywide effort developed in response to research that shows students who aren’t at reading level by third-grade will struggle academically and are unlikely to be qualified for knowledge-based jobs. Eighty-eight percent of high school dropouts could not read proficiently by third-grade, the county’s research shows. The county wants to bring the 42 percent up to 80 percent by 2020, including increasing the percent of children ready for kindergarten.
Supervisor Carole Groom is spearheading this along with County Superintendent Anne Campbell and Erica Wood, vice-president of community leadership and grantmaking at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
“The earlier young people are exposed to age appropriate educational experiences, they’re more ready for kindergarten, which is critical in their success as they go through school,” said Nancy Magee, administrator for board support and community relations at the San Mateo County Office of Education. “If we invest in children in early years, less money is spent on the other end of things.”
County statistics show the cost is high for everyone and includes lower productivity, competitiveness and tax revenue along with higher social costs and more crime. Demographics show the costs will increase as the number of children decreases and retirees surge.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors has dedicated $10 million of the Measure A half-cent sales tax funds to a preschool initiative which would provide 300 new 3-year-olds to free high quality preschool programs to those who can’t afford it. It would also provide 1,000 children currently enrolled in preschool with improved quality preschool, Magee said. Funds need to be matched in two years and the county would need to look for ongoing sustainable funding. The preschool plan will be presented to the Board of Supervisors sometime this month for approval.
This is all part of the Peninsula Partnership Leadership Council’s pet project, which is being undertaken by the Board of Supervisors, San Mateo County Office of Education and Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The Peninsula Partnership Leadership Council is a collaborative of 50 organizations representing government, direct service groups, foundations and business.
Wood said leaders are working hard to bridge the systems of support for children.
“It is a really a group of leaders from across sectors who have come together with a common vision and agenda to improve third-grade reading across San Mateo County,” said Wood. “It’s a challenge that takes collective efforts of many folks. It really is about creating a new social contract for education. ... The linchpin is high quality preschool.”
Teachers also want to help in the county effort. For example, Audrey Fairchild, a teacher at Hillsborough’s Crocker Middle School, runs the school’s community service and service learning group and wants these students to help increase literacy. She’s been in contact with the office of Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, since October 2013.
“We’re hoping to meet with Mullin in Sacramento and get the kids available for tutoring, book drives and read-alouds,” said the social studies teacher and former reading specialist. “Our community service students would like to help. Getting to work with legislators would also be a prestigious thing for students to be involved in. Kids would really see the impact of their work.”
County officials say only half of the county’s children can afford preschool, when education experts view it as essential and its own First 5 San Mateo County pilot program has proven its positive impact on reading scores. More than 6,000 county children are currently on the waiting list for subsidized preschool.
“What people often call an achievement gap is perhaps more fairly described as an opportunity gap,” according to a county statement. “Families with resources can pay for quality preschool and they do. … The opportunity gap starts before kindergarten, shows up in the lack of third-grade reading proficiency, and persists through high school. What we need is a systems response to a systems problem.”
Work groups on school readiness and learning, family engagement, summer learning loss and chronic absence have been meeting for the past year and a half or so to tackle each issue.
“The truth is the world has changed but our education system hasn’t,” according to a county statement. “We now compete in a global knowledge economy, but the United States has a patchwork non-system from birth to age 4, when critical learning should take place. If we were designing our public school system today, it would not start at age 5; it would start at age 3.”
The county also aims to ensure that 80 percent of kids who are reading below level attend a high quality summer program and to reduce chronic absence by 50 percent.
For more on the project visit www.smcoe.org/Superintendent/Pages/PPLC.aspx.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 105