Dismal third-grade reading levels reported at some Kansas City schools

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In Kansas City Public Schools, barely half of third-graders are reading at the level they should be -- and in some schools that number is in the single digits.

If there’s a silver lining, schools across Kansas City know it's a major issue and they’re working hard to fix it.

Eight-year-old Sychez knows how to put the sizzle into reading.

“There was a nice breeze in the hot summer,” he said.

But it hasn't always been easy for the third-grader.

“They have a hunger and a desire to learn and to do well," Literacy Lab tutor Alexander Cole said. "It’s just that we need to take the next step to make sure we’re supporting that hunger."

Third grade reading is a pretty big deal. It's considered a benchmark because in the first few years of school, kids are learning to read. From fourth grade on, they’ve got to read to learn everything from science to social studies and math.

“When kids aren’t reading proficiently, they fall behind in other subjects, which also makes them discouraged, makes them act out and a lot of times drop out of school,” said Mike English, executive director of Turn the Page KC.

That’s why organizations like Turn the Page KC were created.

When Turn the Page started in 2011, only one-third of Kansas City kids were reading well in third grade. That number is now 54 percent, but some schools are struggling even more -- with reading test scores near zero.

“What we can do as a community is really try to help support those parents of those little kids as they’re growing up to help make sure they’re supported in getting them ready for school, but also making sure neighborhoods are safe (and ) kids are able to attend school regularly,” English said.

A lot of charter schools have room for growth, too.

The Academy for Integrated Art in Kansas City said it’s in turn-around mode and drilling down on how to help kids succeed.

Thanks to a grant this year, it now has two literacy tutors at the school. In one-on-one sessions, kids work on everything from letter sounds to the speed and accuracy of their reading. Students needing help get coached every day for 20 minutes.

“Once we look at it from the scope of a week or a month or throughout the school year, we can really look and see, ‘Oh my goodness! This kid has gone from maybe not knowing some of their letter sounds to being able to read a full page in just a couple of minutes,’" Cole said. "So being able to see that growth with the kids is just exceptional."

But there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Turn the Page KC wants at least 70 percent of kids to read at grade level. Getting there and beyond will take big commitments -- like expanding access to preschool to help more kids succeed.

“Most of us, maybe all of us, love Kansas City, so it should matter to people that live in this town that many of our kids are not getting a fair opportunity,” English said.

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved and make a difference. More than 1,000 volunteers with Lead to Read KC go into schools every week, reading to kids to help build their literacy skills and love for learning. Turn the Page KC is always taking book donations to help families create at-home libraries.