United Way: Grade Level Reading aims to boost literacy

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Grade Level Reading by the numbers

  • 12,000 Rapid City youths and families served, either directly or indirectly.
  • Over 50 local partner organizations.
  • Over 175 active committee members.
  • Funded by a three-year $375,870 grant from the John T. Vucurevich Foundation.
  • Entering its third year.

Boosting reading proficiency for Rapid City’s youth is the name of the game at United Way’s Grade Level Reading program. One of the ways to achieve that goal, according to United Way community impact director Danita Simons, is for parents to get active in their children’s educations and begin reading to them regularly from the moment they are born.

“We want to get parents engaged into their child’s literacy,” Simons said. “We want them involved from birth to the rest of their life on, because parents are the first and foremost teachers.”

Aimed at securing literacy in kids — mostly in low-income families — by the time they reach the end of third grade, Rapid City’s version of the national Grade Level Reading program has already affected as many as 12,000 youths and families in the area, thanks to the efforts of more than 50 local partner organizations dedicated to the cause.

Two of those organizations that have committed themselves to the Grade Level Reading program are Bright Start Home, a program that offers services to families during pregnancy, and Early Childhood Connections, which offers resources to parents, teachers and caregivers.

“One of the overall goals of the Bright Start program is to improve childhood health and development outcomes,” said Lisa Washburn, the Bright Start home visitation coordinator. “So this kind of plays right along with that.”

As part of their involvement in the Grade Level Reading program, both Bright Start and Early Childhood Connections distribute book bags to families with newborn children. Each book bag contains a selection of children’s books, parental resources and teaching tools to help parents create a regular reading routine with their child.

“The goal is to teach parents to read to their baby every day, and why it’s important,” Simons said.

The need for increased literacy through early exposure to reading has become apparent to Simons as she has pushed the Grade Level Reading philosophy out into the community.

“When I had gone around and talked to all the elementary schools, I had asked the principals, ‘What are your kindergarten teachers seeing with kiddos coming into school?’” Simons said. “They said they’re seeing a lot of children who have never gone to preschool, children that have never held a book, children that don’t even know what a book is. We’re just seeing more and more kids who just aren’t ready.”

Grade Level Reading hopes to address that problem by helping parents help their kids before they enter school.

Rapid City’s Grade Level Reading program is built on "five pillars," as Simons puts it: healthy readers, school readiness, summer learning, school attendance and successful parents. Improving these areas in the community is the program’s primary goal.

“We didn’t want kids to start behind in preschool,” Simons said. “Once they’re behind, it’s hard to catch them up.”

The logic goes that if kids are healthy in mind and body, they are likelier to gain and maintain proficiency at reading. Reading early helps kids get ready for kindergarten and beyond, while continued reading over the summer keeps kids from falling behind.

Poor attendance also leads to falling behind in reading comprehension, which is why raising awareness of this potential pitfall is essential to the Grade Level Reading program’s mission. Finally, and equally essential, is the push to get parents involved and actively invested in their child’s education.

“Kids, their brains are sponges,” Simons said. “They just soak it all in.”

Among the other partner organizations involved in the Grade Level Reading program are Big Brothers Big Sisters, Working Against Violence Inc., YMCA of Rapid City, the Pennington County Juvenile Diversion Program and the Rapid City school district.

Contact info

Contact United Way of the Black Hills by phone at 343-5872; through the mail at 621 Sixth St., Suite 100, Rapid City, S.D., 57701; or online at unitedwayblackhills.org.

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