Local Programs Set Out to Improve KC's Third-Grade Literacy Rate

Two local literacy programs are turning the page on Kansas city's third-grade literacy rate.


In Diya Carr’s classroom, a group of second graders sit engaged with their heads cocked to the side. Their tiny bodies squirm in the seats as they read aloud with adults who sit almost knees-to-chest beside them. Both are huddled together, lost in the world in front of them, oblivious to the quiet chatter and giggles outside the door.

   This is the scene every Wednesday and Thursday at Boone Elementary, where adults – some retirees, some employees at Burns & McDonnell – volunteer to read with kids for 30 minutes of their lunch breaks through local literacy program Lead to Read.


Diya Carr Kansas City teacher

second grade teacher diya carr


   “I just really wanted to find a small way to give back to the community,” says one Burns & McDonnell employee who’s new to the program. “I spend a lot of time at work, and you get caught up in life and you want to do something. Hopefully it helps someone.”

   That “someone” is Kansas City’s grade-schoolers. In 2011, it was reported that only 33.8 percent of third grade students read proficiently at or above a third-grade level. Today that number has dramatically increased to 50 percent thanks to local programs like Lead to Read, Turn the Page KC and Reach Out and Read KC, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to bridge the gap for children in KC’s urban core.

   Lead to Read works to further improve KC’s third-grade literacy rate through its partnerships with local businesses like Burns & McDonnell, Hallmark and UMB Bank. They identify schools within the school districts of Kansas City Public Schools, Center and Kansas City, Kansas that are 10 to 15 minutes away from partnering businesses. Those employees, along with independent volunteers, pair up with first- to third-grade students in 52 classrooms around town and work one-on-one throughout the school year to strengthen their reading skills. In addition to reading help, the volunteers enable the children to interact with many different kinds of people.


Volunteer Dennis Murray Lead to Read

volunteer dennis murray and studen ryan lockard


   “I like to call our program a soft-literacy, soft-mentoring program,” says Pauly Hart, executive director of Lead to Read. “Because what we’re doing is we’re opening the minds of these kids. Our volunteers are a window to the world and they bring in their occupations and their hobbies, their interests and their travels.”

   At Reach Out and Read KC, one of the city’s longest-running literacy programs, they’re taking the earlier approach to raising the literacy rate by introducing books at infancy. When a kid goes in for a well-child visit at one of the program’s 50 participating clinics, they’re given an age-appropriate book to take home.

   Executive director Jenny Horsley says they’ve consciously expanded into safety net clinics first throughout the years because children in lower-income families tend to hear 3 million fewer words in the first three years of their lives compared to children in more affluent families.

   During the visits, the doctors use the books much like they would a stethoscope: as a tool to help assess the child’s development. They follow their eyes, see if they can grip the book, see if they know colors and shapes and recognize the concept of the book. Volunteers are also present in the waiting room to read to the kids – and often their siblings – before their visit.

   “You never know who’s listening,” Horsley says. “You’re hoping the parents are listening, but you never know what their literacy level is. … And that little thing could teach that child how to enjoy a book by themselves, which could be huge, or also teach their parents how to enjoy the book with them.”

   Although reading is essential to ultimately rewriting a child’s future, it’s also the one-on-one time they spend with volunteers that plays a huge role. For some, it’s something they might not receive at home, and at school, teachers often don’t have the manpower to work one-on-one with each student. Those bonds also give them the confidence to do whatever they put their minds to.

   “I think a lot of times the outside world get disconnected from what we are doing inside the school,” Carr says. “I think it connects everybody, I think it shows the kids that there are people out side of the school building that care about how they’re doing in school. It pushes them to want to do better.” 

Reach Out and Read


 Why the Third-Grade Reading Level Is Important


  •    From birth until third grade kids are learning to read, but once they reach fourth grade they start reading to learn. Missing that mark could result in struggles throughout the child’s educational career.


  •    75 percent of students who struggle with reading in third grade never catch up, and those students are four times as likely to drop out of high school.


  •    Only 35 percent of fourth graders across the country are proficient in reading.
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