The campaign’s annual community breakfast brought together literacy advocates from across the region who discussed strategy and coordination.
SARASOTA — The Patterson Foundation president and CEO Debra Jacobs channeled Mary Poppins when she encouraged a group of roughly 300 community leaders Wednesday to persevere in their efforts to get kids reading.
“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun,” Jacobs said, quoting the world’s most beloved nanny.
Jacobs’ exhortation to embrace your inner child came at the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s annual Community Update Breakfast at Michael’s on East in Sarasota.
The event brought together representatives from Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, and DeSoto counties, along with leaders from the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading who are focused on improving child literacy rates in all four counties.
Beth Duda, executive director of the Suncoast Campaign, highlighted the dire consequences for children who cannot read on grade level by the end of third grade — a metric that researchers often focus on because of how reliably it indicates future success.
“Low levels of literacy are firmly associated with high levels of poverty,” Duda said.
The campaign partners with an array of initiatives that leaders say play a role in improving reading abilities. The campaign’s five main strategies are to reduce chronic absenteeism, improve summer education and early learning programs, engage parents, and provide health services to low-income families.
Progress has not been easy, and despite a raft of initiatives, the percentage of third-graders reading on grade level dropped in all four counties last year. Many of the Suncoast Campaign’s programs are aimed at young children, so leaders hope to see the efforts pay off in the coming years.
“The Grade-Level reading movement is a marathon; it is not a sprint,” said Kirsten Russell, director of community investment for the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, the campaign’s lead partner in Sarasota.
A handful of community leaders were recognized for their efforts to advance child literacy in the last year.
• Jim Henry, a Sarasota Rotary Member, was honored for his leadership in a dental program that provides free dental sealants to children attending Sarasota’s Title I elementary schools.
• John and Amanda Horne, owners of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, started Dive into Reading, a summer reading and mentoring program held at five locations for more than 270 Manatee children this summer.
• Carolyn and Steve Roskamp helped develop Soar in Four, a program in six Title I Manatee elementary schools that prepares 4-year-old children and their parents for kindergarten.
• William Russell, CEO of Sarasota Public Housing Authority, was recognized for an attendance program in public housing that improved daily attendance by 56 percent and for developing a VPK program on site in two public housing units.
Duda received high praise from Ron Fairchild, a senior consultant with the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
“Sometimes there are stars that burn a little bit brighter than others,” Fairchild said. “Sometimes there are superstars. I can think of no finer community leader in this country than Beth Duda.”
This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership/.