The human costs of poverty-driven adversity start early, persist into adulthood, and betray the uniquely American birthright guarantee: Where you start in life will determine neither what you accomplish nor where you finish. Child poverty in the US costs between $800 billion and $1.1 trillion annually. However, poverty is not an attribute of children and families, but rather poverty is a condition that can impact children’s development.

Child development is the foundation for community and economic development, as capable children become the foundation of a prosperous and sustainable society. We must ensure that all children get this strong foundation in the earliest years of life. We then work to support their journey towards college and/or career readiness and the attainment of a living wage job. To that end, we strive for higher on-time graduation rates for all students. High school graduates earn 47% more than dropouts and college graduates earn 59% more than dropouts. High school dropouts commit, on average, 75% of all crimes in the US. One way to increase on-time graduation and lessen dropout rates is to reduce chronic absenteeism and keep kids connected — and in school. The greatest predictor we have connecting lower absenteeism and higher graduation rates is the third grade reading marker. If students are on-grade level reading by the third grade, they are four times more likely not to drop out and graduate on time!

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing achievement gaps. That said, even pre-COVID, the latest Virginia Biennial School Readiness Report Card states 43% of economically disadvantaged elementary school students failed the third grade reading Standards of Learning (SOL). The implications are dire. Almost half of our low-income population were not reading on-grade level before the pandemic and it will likely be worse as teachers and families grapple with the last two years of classroom disruptions and learning loss.

Our foundation has recently introduced the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading initiative to Winchester. The Campaign seeks to disrupt generational poverty and assure more hopeful futures for children from low-income families by helping them grasp the first step on the success sequence ladder — high school graduation. Toward that end, we are planting a flag around the importance of third grade literacy. For the past seven months, a burgeoning coalition representing a wide range of organizations has been meeting to discuss and develop a community-wide action plan. Our emerging plan focuses on improving school readiness, reducing chronic absenteeism, and increasing summer and afterschool learning opportunities. We believe everyone has an important role to play in supporting our children and families in improving third grade reading readiness. Our planning effort will soon culminate in Winchester joining the nationwide Campaign for Grade-Level Reading which now includes more than 350 communities in 45 states. We do hope you will join our growing coalition as we seek to make a real difference for the betterment of our community.

Matthew T. Peterson, M.A. is the John & Janice Wyatt Foundation's executive director. 

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