Amarii Simpson, 9, was sitting up front, a copy of My First Dictionary on the table before him in a room at the McVeigh Recreation Center at D and Ontario Street in Kensington.
Why was he reading a dictionary?
He gave a "duh" look in response to the question.
"So I can learn more words!"
Amarii is on the ball in other ways, too. A 4th grader at Elkin Elementary School, just a few blocks from McVeigh, he is quick to announce that he gets all As and Bs and scored proficient on the PSSA -- not just in reading, but in math, too. And the veteran Recreation Department camper also knows that the reading breaks and other activities, like the trips to the library that punctuated this summer at McVeigh, are something new.
"Last year," he announced confidently, as dignitaries bustled around him, their speeches done, "we didn't have the city of Philadelphia doing this."
"This" is READ by 4th, an ambitious campaign to have almost all Philadelphia students reading on grade level by the 4th grade. Now, just about half do -- a troubling statistic because data indicate that students who don't reach that benchmark are many times more likely to fall behind and drop out of school.
READ stands for Ready, Engaged, Able, and Determined. The goal is for all 4th graders here to be proficient in reading in six years -- by 2020.
City leaders including Superintendent William Hite came to McVeigh on Tuesday for the official launch of READ by 4th, which is Philadelphia's piece of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, launched by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and underway in some 150 cities and towns and 39 states.
Based on leveraging resources and bringing together important civic actors around this goal, READ by 4th has 50 local sponsoring public and private businesses and organizations. (Disclosure: The Notebook is among them, having committed to cover the campaign and the issue of summer learning loss.)
The "founding corporate sponsor" is Wells Fargo Bank. Greg Redden, regional president, called the campaign "one of the most important public/private efforts we can support. It's important to have a well-educated workforce." Companies know, he said, "the consequences of having an unskilled applicant pool."
As founding corporate sponsor, Wells Fargo will make a six-year financial commitment that, among other things, will underwrite "ultimate block parties" that get reading materials and other resources into the hands of parents. They will also support bringing technical assistance to early-grade teachers so they can create literacy-rich classrooms and use the best teaching strategies.
The "founding media partner" is Clear Channel Media. Loraine Ballard Morrill, its director of news and community affairs, said that Clear Channel's six radio stations will spread the message, especially to parents of young children.
"We will make this our priority," she said.
The major areas of focus are:
- Improving early learning and child care.
- Giving parents training and tools to help their children develop reading skills.
- Making sure students read over the summer to counteract the so-called "summer slide" in skills.
- Attacking absenteeism by addressing health issues.
- Improving reading instruction in schools to provide more individual attention to students.
"It's obvious that all of us need to do a better job" in getting children to be proficient readers, said Debra Kahn, executive director of Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia. She said that while the public and private sectors have long recognized the problem, "what's missing is collective strategy." This campaign is providing that, she said, adding, "We have our work cut out for us."
In its planning stages, the campaign has been led by Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the Urban Affairs Coalition. Sharmain Matlock-Turner, CEO of UAC, said that the groups are seeking another organization "to step forward and carry the ball for the next six years."
The campaign is also continuing to seek more partners and funders. Among those already involved are the Free Library, the Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Please Touch Museum, the Maternity Care Coalition, the YMCA, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the Philadephia School Partnership, the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Drexel University, Parent Power, and United Way.
"If we can provide for a child to learn to read, we've gone a long way to solving the problems we are faced with as a city and a country," said Hite.
As part of the initiative, the Recreation Department added a literacy component this summer to 20 of its camps, including McVeigh's. Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis said that the goal is to expand it to the entire system.
Diane Halin was point person for the program at McVeigh. Every Friday, the children went to the library branch at McPherson Square and picked out books.
At first, she said, they were resistant, but "the more we did it, the more they liked it." Halin also bought books for them to have at the recreation center and read to them regularly.
Maribel de Jesus was there with her two grandchildren, Briseyda and Anthony McKissick.
She was proud that Anthony, 8, who is about to enter 3rd grade, could read "big books" on his own. And Briseyda, 9, loves to read to her brother, she said.
Anthony was right there with de Jesus, but she looked around to find Briseyda.
"There she is," she said, pointing to a little girl sitting quietly by herself on the other side of the room. "See, she is reading a book."