Walk4Literacy spreads the word about reading achievement gap

Walk4Literacy participants Maiah Williams, left, Jayda Vogelsang and Brandon Vogelsang meet Curious George during Saturday’s event in Sacramento.
Walk4Literacy participants Maiah Williams, left, Jayda Vogelsang and Brandon Vogelsang meet Curious George during Saturday’s event in Sacramento.

Curious George, the Cat in the Hat and a gaggle of other storybook creatures took to the streets Saturday in Oak Park to march with a crowd of 1,000 people to the Central Library in the name of literacy.

The reading enthusiasts, many with children in tow, walked a steady 4 miles from McClatchy Park to Cesar Chavez Plaza to raise awareness about what event organizers call a “literacy crisis.” Each paid a fee for their spot in the crowd, contributing to what the Sacramento Public Library Foundation expects will be a $15,000 boost to community organizations promoting literacy.

Only 37 percent of Sacramento third-graders read at grade level, according to the Sacramento Public Library. The rest are struggling to keep up, having slowly fallen behind their peers due to chronic absences, health issues, lack of parental interaction or gaps in summer learning.

The second literacy walk was hosted by the Sacramento Public Library Foundation, the fundraising arm of the public library system. Last year’s event raised $10,000, which was distributed in $2,500 grants to Teach for America, 916 Ink, the Mustard Seed School and the Center for Fathers and Families.

“We want parents to know that there is a community of literacy collaborators out there, and we want to help them find the right resources for their families,” said April Butcher of the library foundation. “We’re also here to help schools, because we know they can’t do it alone.”

How well children read can depend on what happens before they get to kindergarten. In low-income households, children are exposed to 30 million fewer words than middle- and high-income children by the time they reach age 3, according to the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national collaborative focused on helping all students reach reading standards.

Parents in those households may not know how often to read to and speak with their children, Butcher said. They may also lack resources – 61 percent of low-income families have no children’s books in their houses, according to the library.

In classrooms, teachers can spot children with literacy problems based on their fluency – how many words they can read correctly per minute – and their phonemic awareness – how well they can put sounds together, said Nik Howard, executive director of Teach for America Capital Valley. If a student is falling behind, teachers can provide individualized teaching programs, sight and word flashcards, or audiobooks depending on the child’s needs.

Attendance in early grades is also crucial, he said, because that’s where children build the foundation for everything they’ll learn in the future.

“Third grade is a gateway grade,” he said. “Up until third grade, you’re learning how to read. And then from third grade on, you have to read to learn.”

Families should also be careful about the “summer slide,” or the loss of healthy reading habits over the summer, Butcher said. On average, students lose up to two months of reading achievement when not in school. Last summer, the Sacramento Public Library bulked up its summer reading offerings and drew 30,000 children to the library – a record high since the program started with 8,000 children in 2008.

Kanitra Lopez, who walked in the literacy march with her husband, Paulo, and her daughters, Samantha and Makayla, said learning to read – in Spanish and English – is a top priority for the girls.

Library trips are routine for the Rocklin family, and story time occurs nightly. Samantha, 3, is listening in for now, while Makayla, 4, is getting ready to start reading.

“Makayla is very excited,” Paulo said. “She wants to learn how to read so bad.”

“It’s so important to start early,” said Kanitra, a former teacher. “We’ve joined reading clubs, we go to the library. We have books all over the place.”

The 4-mile walk culminated with a literacy festival in Cesar Chavez Plaza, where more than 20 nonprofits set up tables to distribute information about after-school programs, parent interaction play groups, creative writing clubs and more.

At the booth for the nonprofit Attendance Institute, an event sponsor, children were encouraged to scribble their dream jobs on a certificate as inspiration to keep going to school and learning.

On the other side of the park, the group 916 Ink, also an event sponsor, sold compilations of poetry and prose from student authors. The group’s mission is to hone creative writing skills and build confidence among youth.

Isaac Lara, a senior at the Aspire Alexander Twilight College Preparatory Academy and 916 Ink participant, said he never would have found his love for writing if he hadn’t improved his reading skills. In his free time, he writes about mental health stigma and the environment – plus an occasional love poem.

“As a kid, I never read a lot. I was always doing other things,” he said. “But then I started picking up my reading habits and then I found that I had a lot to say through writing. Learning to read is a way to expose kids to new ideas, and to help them find themselves in what they’re reading.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola