United Way’s ‘Success by 6’ seeks to boost literacy

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Three-year-olds Maya Woods and Amiyah Jones use a book about sharks to practice their reading skills with Early Connections Executive Director Diane Price.

Nearly 17,400 Colorado high school students failed to graduate in 2009 — something that will cost them $4.5 billion in personal income over their lifetimes.

The Pikes Peak United Way is trying to strengthen those statistics with a new program it hopes will increase graduation rates among students who are now entering kindergarten.

“About one-quarter of our third graders don’t read at grade level,” said School Readiness Initiative Manager Amber Cote, who is heading up the new “Success by 6” program. “And that’s critical, because after third grade, you don’t learn to read, you read to learn.”

Study after study shows the benefits of early childhood education — but it’s the area where the nation as a whole spends the least amount of money. Day care expenses are left largely up to parents, leaving low income families with few options.

That’s where the program comes in.

United Way is placing free books in doctors’ offices and day care centers around the city. They’re providing free books to parents as they leave the hospitals, as well as a brief lesson on the importance of reading to children at early ages.

The Success by 6 program is also looking to use grant money to fund partnerships with agencies that perform home visits, and other organizations the United Way has never partnered with.

“You don’t have to be a United Way partner to get a grant, if you are providing these services,” said United Way President and CEO J.D. Dallinger. “We don’t want to repeat services or copy them — we’re trying to bring everyone in on this, it’s that important.”

It’s not only important for the families of these children, he said, it should be important to the area’s business and community leaders as well.

The reason? A highly educated workforce attracts high-tech companies with good jobs and steady paychecks.

“Businesses should be giving to this project,” Cote said. “It matters now, because these initiatives create a stable work force — parents can be more present at work, instead of worrying about who’s taking care of their kids. And it matters in the future, because those kids are tomorrow’s work force.”

Georgetown University anticipates that Colorado will be one of the top states in the nation for the creation of jobs requiring a university degree by 2018. And the nonprofit group, Colorado Succeeds, says the current rate of high school dropouts is equal to “a permanent recession.”

“At the current rate, within 10 years, Colorado will have produced an additional 174,000 high school drop outs,” the report said. “The recurring cost …is substantially larger than the deep recession the United States is currently experiencing.”

Troubling local statistics are one reason United Way is embracing the project, Cote said.

“It makes sense to provide funding for the groups addressing early childhood education,” she said. “It helps us all, particularly the business community.”

Early Connections, one of the oldest Head Start centers in the city, is participating in the program, seeking grant funding to continue the work it already does for low-income parents.

“We rely on United Way,” said Early Connections Executive Director Diane Price. “We offer scholarships to some of our parents, and we couldn’t without that money. Early childhood education is expensive and is out of the price range for many of our families.”

Early Connections provides hands-on training for parents, including a home visit every semester.

“We also have pre-reading, pre-writing, pre-math classes, well, pre-everything, really,” Price said. “We’re all realizing now that the first five years of life is critical to success later.”

Currently, Success for Six is focusing on Harrison District 2 and parts of Colorado Springs District 11, home to 70 percent of El Paso County children who are living in poverty.

United Way begins its official campaign for the project today, and is seeking both applications from agencies and donations from the local business community. It has pledged $700,000 to the project.

“We’ll start accepting applications now, for programs to start in 2012,” Cote said. “And we really are looking to find anyone who is interested in being a part of this effort, anyone who wants to give, collaborate or volunteer.”

The effort isn’t aimed only at early childhood programs or at elementary schools. There’s definitely a place for everyone, organizers say.

And Cote has a message for the business community.

“You aren’t looking for a work force that didn’t graduate from high school,” she said. “If we are going to compete in a global market, if we are going to stand a chance to succeed, this is where it starts.”