Of Zip Codes and Schools

Back Commentary Apr 1, 2010 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

Mayor Kevin Johnson cited a statistic in his January state of the city speech that surprised, even shocked, me: In only one of Sacramento’s 19 zip codes are 70 percent or more of third-graders reading at grade level.

Why is that so significant? Because if children haven’t mastered reading skills by then — after studying reading as their main focus during the first two years of school — research predicts 80 percent of them never will.

And, if a child can’t read well, he or she can’t make much progress in other subjects. Children who can’t read by third grade are likely to underachieve the rest of their lives, in school, at work and in their communities.

Such findings aren’t limited to Sacramento. Many cities throughout our region and our state face the same sobering statistics.

Children who can’t read by third grade are likely to underachieve the rest of their lives, in school, at work and in their communities.

To his credit, Johnson has addressed the problem head-on by making school reform one of his main initiatives. A year ago, he convened an education summit that brought together local educators and national school leaders.

Out of that dialogue came a number of recommendations, among them the establishment of an intermediary that would work collaboratively with schools citywide to bring new resources and ideas to the system. That nonprofit, Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, was launched with a commitment from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation to give $250,000 now and another $250,000 once the city has found $500,000 in matching funds from local donors and other foundations.

Stand Up is working on several aspects of school improvement, including filling all of our schools with high-quality teachers. To do that, Stand Up has reached out to a number of organizations, including Teach for America.

Teach for America, created in 1990, aims to recruit and train top college graduates to teach for at least two years in our country’s hardest-to-staff schools. These enthusiastic young teachers have achieved considerable success in low-achieving schools in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland.

Johnson once served on Teach for America’s national board and has lobbied hard to bring the organization to Sacramento. Last month Sacramento was chosen as one of 15 finalists competing to fill three spots where the program will place teachers next fall. Here in Sacramento those teachers would go into struggling schools, specifically science, math and special education classes, where willing teachers are in short supply.

That’s providing our community can raise $2.7 million to pay expenses and commit to accepting 30 teachers each year for three years, for a total of 90 teachers. The Bay Area Morgan Family Foundation, known for funding youth-related projects, has already pledged $600,000.

Many of us in the business community have long had grave concerns about the state of our schools. We’ve seen the results of mediocre school performance, budget cuts and students who lack direction and motivation. We see them every time we look to hire an entry-level worker, sometimes even in those who claim to have post-secondary education.

Now, we have an opportunity to go beyond concern and complaints. Both Stand Up and the city’s bid to gain Teach for America resources need support, specifically in terms of donations, fundraising and community backing. Let’s join with the mayor in helping to ensure that, in fact, no child is left behind — no matter what his or her zip code.

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