Mayors Convene to Pursue Efforts to Help Children Read at Grade-Level by the Third Grade

July 14, 2014

By Katie Whitehouse

On July 7 and 8, NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families (YEF Institute) hosted a Mayor’s Institute on Children and Families in Chicago that focused on the issue of grade-level reading. Mayor Nan Whaley from Dayton, Ohio; Mayor Sylvester “Sly” James from Kansas City, Missouri; Mayor Betsy Hodges from Minneapolis, Minnesota; and City Manager Betsy Fretwell from Las Vegas, Nevada gathered to strategize ways to better ensure that children in their cities are reading at grade-level by the time they reach the third grade. Welcomed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city leaders heard about the successes and challenges he has experienced while working to improve early school success in Chicago.

The MICF model is a proven strategy used to build the capacity of mayors to take action on behalf of children and families.  Rooted in a rich exchange of ideas among mayors, local staff and partners, prominent researchers, and practitioners,  the model allows each participating mayor to present a prepared case statement of a local challenge and then receive feedback from peers and a team of national experts assembled by YEF Institute staff. 

The participating mayors, their staff and local partners shared their concern that many children are not ready for kindergarten and too few are receiving high quality early childhood education, and discussed strategies to address this concern. Many of these children come from low-income families who encounter many barriers to high-quality education settings and often enter school behind their more advantaged peers.

Working to Improve Early Childhood Education

The three mayors and city manager are currently leading initiatives to address some of the greatest barriers to achieving on-time grade-level reading. One of the major obstacles they experience is the lack of access to high quality early education.  For example, in the City of Dayton, only 33 of the city’s 77 childcare and preschool providers are “star rated”, meaning they are considered high quality. Without access to high quality early education, children may not be prepared for kindergarten or classroom learning. In the city of Minneapolis, only 41 percent of Hispanic children and 57 percent of American Indian children are ready for kindergarten, compared to 91 percent of white children.

Despite these discouraging statistics, cities are working to combat these challenges in a myriad of ways. Las Vegas is developing a collective impact initiative called Downtown Achieves which will be used as a platform to promote early learning, school readiness, and grade-level reading.  The effort draws on resources from the entire community including businesses, community based organizations, the Clark County school district, and the University of Nevada (Las Vegas) with a goal to strengthen involvement from the business community.

One common theme of the MICF was the need for access to quality data at both the population and individual levels to determine a baseline for children’s development and measure program impact. Kansas City is creating a data dashboard for the city, school administrators, parents and teachers so that anyone can easily understand reading proficiency scores in terms of grade levels. Armed with data about their city’s schools, the Mayor’s office and a community organization called Turn the Page KC will be able to deploy support to the schools that need it most.

The importance of parent engagement was a recurrent topic at the Institute. Mayor Hodges of Minneapolis has worked to include parents in her “Cradle to K Cabinet”.  Parents sit on the cabinet to provide their perspectives on three main objectives: ensure that all children receive a healthy start that prepares them for successful early education, all children are stably housed, and all children have continuous access to high quality child development centered child care. Mayor Hodges hopes to further engage all Minneapolis parents to effectively inform families about the critical importance of early childhood education.

Mayor Nan Whaley is particularly interested in improving the quality of Dayton’s early childhood education opportunities. While Dayton has many early education slots, quality and access are lacking. The city is working with a neighboring community to pilot a Preschool Promise program with a vision to increase the number of high-quality programs and increase the number of children attending high quality preschool.

Faculty at the MICF who were recruited to lend their expertise to address the mayors’ challenges represented a broad range of organizations and cities including the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, the University of Chicago, the City of Seattle, the City of Hartford, Community Organizing and Family Issues, Zero to Three, and the National Results and Equity Collaborative.

The YEF Institute will continue to support city efforts to improve rates of grade level reading by providing direct follow-up assistance to Mayors’ Institute participants and helping them create a peer learning and sharing network.