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How Philly plans to get more kids reading by fourth grade

Fewer than half of Philadelphia fourth graders now read at grade level. But a citywide, multiagency, multimillion-dollar campaign aims to change that, doubling the number of children who hit that goal by 2020.

About 100 people gathered Thursday at City Hall to talk about the goals, progress, and promise of Read by 4th, an effort of the School District, the city, and the Free Library.

Mayor Kenney, who was honored as a "Reading Hero," made it clear that the goal is "one of the most crucial priorities" of his administration. With a push from Kenney, the city has invested millions in pre-kindergarten programs and on community schools, which embed social services in school buildings to help eliminate barriers to academic success. A controversial tax on sugary beverages is to pay for the programs.

The Read by 4th campaign aims to boost early literacy by improving the quality of reading instruction in city schools, addressing barriers to student attendance, promoting summer reading to ward off learning loss, and working with parents to help strengthen students' reading skills.

William R. Hite Jr. has made the goal a centerpiece of his superintendency. But a few years ago, getting 80 percent of fourth graders reading on target seemed "almost an impossible feat," he said.

"We had outdated materials in classrooms. There were about 30 children or more in classrooms who together represented 26 different reading levels. You didn't know quite what to do as a reading instructor," Hite said.

The partnerships and the philanthropy have mattered, Hite said. The district pledged in 2015 that it would spend $30 million on the effort, and  the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation have donated millions.

An intensive summer program paid for by funders has given not just instruction in how to more effectively teach children to read, but also has promised reading specialists in every elementary school for at least two years.

"It has made such a difference," said Lynne Millard, principal of Crossan Elementary in the Northeast.

Brent Johnstone did not read well for years.

"I'm the kid who sat in the classroom, scared. I'm the kid who sat in a classroom and had anxiety about learning. I'm the kid who thought he was dumb for 22 years because I couldn't read. I couldn't comprehend. I couldn't write without making mistakes," said Johnstone, now a parent, a published author, and a Read by 4th advocate.

"We know that if children are not reading on grade level by fourth grade, they will continue to fall behind," said Jenny Bogoni, executive director of Read by 4th.

The Thursday event was billed as a roundtable,  and doubled as a pitch for organizations to continue to invest in the campaign.

"We need more investments to reach more families," Bogoni said. "We need you to help transform our bold ideas into action."

Greg Redden, a Wells Fargo vice president, has committed his organization to provide tutors for struggling readers at Southwark Elementary School, a model he hopes will take off.

Corporate partners are often willing to provide one-offs - employees to go into schools to read to students. What if they took it to the next level, Redden said, training tutors to help lift students up on a one-to-one basis?

"We need an army of trained citizen volunteers," Redden said.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, challenged those in the room.

"If we can't galvanize on this momentum at this moment, shame on us," Cooper said. "There has never been a time when there's been this much unity and direction."