One of the most important roles a public university can play in a community is to serve as a conduit for the healthy exchange of information, regardless of whether the dialogue occurs in a formal classroom setting or an open community forum.
At the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, we embraced this important responsibility a few years ago and created the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership, or IPPL, to provide opportunities for members of our community to address issues of importance.
Reports published earlier this year that both Manatee and Sarasota counties had fewer third-grade students reading at their grade level than they did last year raise significant concern for the educational success of these students. Grade-level reading can predict the ability of young students to achieve during their academic careers, including meeting entrance requirements of a state university, such as USF, where most of the students we serve come from these two counties. Grade-level reading also can forecast the positive or negative long-term effects on the quality of the local workforce and economy of our region.
In Sarasota County, 68 percent of third-grade students are reading at grade level, and in Manatee, only 49 percent of third-grade students are at grade level. This alarming information is very important because we know that third-grade reading scores are a key metric in predicting how many students will drop out or graduate from high school. Overall, last year the percentage of students reading at grade level dipped across Florida, from 58 percent to 57 percent, according to test scores released by the state.
READ MORE: The Herald-Tribune's coverage of grade-level reading issues.
The Campaign for Grade Level Reading revealed that a troubling number of children — about 64 percent nationwide — are not proficient readers by the end of third grade. If left unaddressed, this will have significant and long-term consequences not only for each of those children but also for their communities and our nation as a whole.
As an institution of higher learning, we exist to train students to become proficient in various academic disciplines so that our graduates are able to embark on prosperous careers, meet the workforce demands in our community and lead lives of impact. However, in order to contribute to a student’s academic journey, a basic, foundational skill as important as reading cannot be deficient. Our community must produce well-prepared students who can go on to prosperous careers locally. To address these broad questions and delve into potential solutions, USF Sarasota-Manatee is hosting a Suncoast Education Solutions Summit on Friday with local educators and influencers. We look forward to the discussion and are pleased to be a part of a community that is working to boost grade-level reading scores.
The coordinated efforts of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading, or SCGLR, as well as the targeted efforts of community-based programs such as the “Dive into Reading” program — among many other small and large groups and initiatives — demonstrate our community’s commitment to a better future.
Moving the needle on grade-level reading will take time, and IPPL will continue to be a positive catalyst in our region on this issue with the Solutions Summit focused on the five areas identified by the SCGLR to ensure early school success: school readiness, attendance, summer learning, family engagement and health determinants.
These policy silos are served by numerous government, nonprofit and private sector entities across the Suncoast region. As part of our ongoing promise to be a community-engaged institution committed to the long-term success of our region, our state and our world, this summit is one of the many ways USFSM and the IPPL are engaging the greater Suncoast community by bringing experts and decision-makers together. We hope to identify policies to remove barriers, expand opportunities, and assist decision-makers in fulfilling their roles and responsibilities to assure the individual and collective success of all our local children.
The quality of the future workforce in our region depends on various stakeholders analyzing the current data and engaging with each other to inform actions, activate the community to achieve shared goals, and grow the capacity of education and workforce readiness systems and leaders. To do this, IPPL at USFSM has created the space to have authentic dialogue, rooted in data and solutions.
Karen Holbrook is regional chancellor of the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee