Arizona Daily Star

If a child can't read proficiently by the end of third grade - and understand and explain what he's read - his chances of dropping out of high school jump.

One in four fourth-graders in Pima County don't read at grade level. That's about 3,000 students who are on a hard path. It's not too late to help them, and the need to act is urgent.

Research tells us that the seeds of a person's future are planted in infancy. Babies who are read to by their parent or another adult, for example, perform better in school than those who don't have that experience, and that carries on through early childhood.

By third grade, educators say, students switch from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."

Ensuring that every child has a firm foundation of reading skills is vital, and if a child isn't reading at grade level by the end of third grade, she will fall farther behind each school year. The price is paid in real terms for the individual student, as high school dropouts earn far less than those with a diploma, and those with a high school education earn less than those with a college degree.

But the community pays a price, too, because industry relies on well-educated workers, as does the military. Academic failure is an individual challenge but carries broader implications.

This is one reason the Arizona Legislature in 2010 passed a law that requires third-graders be able to read near or at grade level before passing to fourth grade. With few exceptions, that means being held back in third grade.

The benchmark goes into effect next year.

School districts have been working to boost reading skills, with an eye toward the upcoming requirement. Some have received state money to help, but with restrictions on how the funds can be spent.

The Tucson Unified School District is spending $6.3 million over five years in state money earmarked for K-3 literacy to purchase a software package that will be installed across the district.

In a reading lab at Homer Davis Elementary School, in the Flowing Wells Unified School District, two small groups of first- and second-graders gathered around reading specialists and read "Cali the Colorful Cow."

The kids talked about the story and answered questions about vocabulary words - "what does the word 'risk' mean?" prompted one boy to point to his wrist. The teacher asked again, emphasizing the "sk" sound so he could hear the difference between risk and wrist.

Breaking reading down to specific sounds and techniques is a precise business, and one that requires highly skilled educators.

The United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona is working with 19 schools in TUSD, and the Flowing Wells and Sahuarita Unified School districts. The agency will help provide trained volunteers and funding to help families prepare their children for school, to improve attendance and to keep students from losing knowledge over the summer break.

Investing in third-graders now will pay dividends for the entire community.