WINCHESTER — Local physicians, educators and nonprofits have banded together to bring the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to Winchester.

"This is an initiative to improve literacy for kids in kindergarten, but with the goal to be at a third-grade [reading] level by third grade," Colette Sabbagh, a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates of Winchester and local proponent of the literacy initiative, said during a recent presentation to City Council.

Ralph Smith, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, wrote in an overview of the nonprofit organization that "[a]n alarming number of children — about 67 percent nationwide, and more than 80 percent of those from low-income families — are not proficient readers by the end of third grade. ... If left unchecked, this problem will undermine efforts to end intergenerational poverty, close the achievement gap and reduce high school dropout rates."

Since the initiative launched in May 2010, Smith wrote, more than 350 communities have joined the campaign's Grade-Level Reading Communities Network, "which is bringing together mayors, United Way agencies, chambers of commerce, schools, parents and educators to substantially increase third grade reading proficiency in their cities and towns."

Winchester is one of the latest communities to join the network.

"The [local] committee for Grade-Level Reading has initiatives, including things like providing books for children in the Winchester area," Sabbagh said. "If a book is given to them [parents or guardians of young children], it reminds them of the importance of reading daily to children."

Andy Gail, executive director of Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area, said his nonprofit will serve as the backbone for the local campaign.

"Based on the 2018 numbers for SOL [Standards of Learning] reading scores statewide, 78% of third-graders were at reading level," Gail said. "That's in contrast to Winchester city's reading level of 67%."

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced most students to attend school remotely for the majority of the 2020-21 academic year, only worsened the situation. After more than a year of dealing with the coronavirus, Gail said the number of local third-graders at reading level has dropped to 62%.

"We know there's a problem; we want to address it," Gail said.

Matthew Peterson, executive director of the nonprofit John and Janice Wyatt (J2W) Foundation in Winchester, said the local Grade-Level Reading committee has been laying the groundwork and lining up community partners for about seven months and is almost ready to formally kick off the literacy campaign in Winchester.

"We know that children from birth to third grade learn to read, and from third grade forward read to learn," Peterson said. "If they're not on grade-level reading by third grade, they're four times more likely to drop out and not graduate high school on time."

Since the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has already been implemented in more than 300 communities across the United States and Canada, Peterson said there is plenty of evidence to show how well it works.

"If we look south to Roanoke, we see a very successful campaign that's been working with a 100,000-person population over the last 10-plus years," he said. "As an example, over a six-year period pre-COVID, their reading SOLs went from 65% ready to 74%. Low-income reading SOLs during that time period went from 60% up to 71%, and their on-time graduation rates jumped from 64% to 90%."

"The simplest way I can state it," Sabbagh said, "is that books build brains."

Peterson said the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading won't be an overnight fix. He foresees a commitment of at least 10 years by the local committee and its partner organizations including Winchester Public Schools, Handley Regional Library System, various nonprofits and local pediatricians.

For more information about the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, visit gradelevelreading.net.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

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