WITH MORE than half of its third-graders behind in reading skills, Philadelphia has signed on to take part in a national campaign to boost literacy in the early grades.

Mayor Nutter and Superintendent William Hite made the announcement yesterday, joining 140 other cities and communities around the country that participate in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The campaign's goal is to double the number of students reading at grade level by the end of third grade - a key indicator of future success - by 2020.

Thanks to an $87,000 grant from the Barra Foundation, the organization Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) and the Urban Affairs Coalition will spend the next six months working with several agencies and community groups to form an action plan to address the issue. They said some of the barriers to students reading at grade level are absenteeism and summer "brain drain."

PCCY Board Chairwoman Leslie Russell Winder called illiteracy "a cancer that strikes our children at a very young age."

According to officials, research shows that 74 percent of students who fail to read proficiently by the end of third grade struggle in later grades and often drop out of high school. In Philadelphia only 6 percent of public elementary schools have at least 75 percent of their third-graders proficient in reading.

Nutter called illiteracy a contributing factor to poverty and crime and said the country is "at a crossroads" in education. He urged state lawmakers to come up with a school-funding formula, which would distribute dollars based on the number of students.

On Thursday education officials got some good news when the state announced it had received a $52 million grant as part of the federal Race to the Top program, focused on early-childhood education. Those funds will be distributed over four years.