TAMPA — About 40 percent of third-grade children in Hillsborough read below grade level, 2014 school accountability tests show.
The benchmark is viewed by educators as a major predictor of later success. Children who are already behind are more likely to end up dropping out of high school, a path that often ends with unemployment, prison and a lifetime of low wages, said Jamie Toennies, senior director of education strategies for United Way Suncoast, a community nonprofit.
The group has spent $12 million over the past two years as the lead agency in Hillsborough for the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a nationwide effort to improve literacy among the nation’s poorest children.
Now, the campaign is getting a hand from the federal government.
Julián Castro, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, visited Tampa on Friday to announce that the city has been chosen as one of 25 communities nationwide where local housing authorities will partner with the campaign to ensure that more children in public housing get help with reading.
Castro, rumored to be a potential vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton, visited children from Booker T. Washington Elementary School at the Encore public housing project on the northeastern edge of downtown Tampa.
“We believe housing is a powerful platform for sparking greater opportunity in people’s lives,” Castro said. “That starts with our youngest residents to ensure we cultivate their ability to stay on grade level, be more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college.”
The partnership will not provide additional funding for the campaign but will make it easier to get extra coaching and help to students who live in public housing, said Ralph Smith, the campaign’s managing director.
The collaboration means that in addition to offering extra help in schools and summer camps, literacy programs can run in public housing community centers, making them easier to access for parents who cannot afford cars.
Nationwide, some 4 million low-income children live in HUD-assisted housing. They typically have less exposure to books and start school with poorer reading ability and smaller vocabularies than peers from more affluent homes.
That so-called “achievement gap” is about 35 percent larger for children born after 2001 than those born 25 years earlier, according to the National Summer Learning Association.
One of the tools Hillsborough literacy campaigns are using to develop children’s reading skills is the myON program, an online library with over 6,000 children’s books.
The system is like a reading version of Netflix, the popular video screening service. Children go through initial reading assessment tests to gauge their levels. Then the system recommends books for their levels. As they read more, it makes recommendations based on their tastes and interests.
When a word stumps the reader, he or she can just press on it for a definition.
It also serves as a tool for teachers, recording how much time children are spending reading.
That myON is accessed through the Internet or on hand-held devices like tablets makes it more appealing to a generation accustomed to technology, said Julie Cole, program account manager.
Hillsborough children have read about 6 million books through the program, Cole said, and started 18 million books.
“Reading still happens even if they didn’t finish the book,” she said.
In Tampa, the campaign will partner with the Tampa Housing Authority, which administers more than 3,000 public housing units and the voucher program for more than 8,200 Section 8 homes.
Those properties are home to about 5,500 children age 17 and younger.
Jerome Ryans, housing authority president and CEO, said, “This will have a positive impact not only on our children but also our graduation rates.”