PITTSFIELD -- At the beginning of the year, a small group of community leaders made a promise to support early literacy initiatives for Pittsfield children and families.
A Wednesday ceremony attended by state and national leaders of this movement, along with more than 70 other vested volunteers and stakeholders gathered to officially make a promise that, with continued support and resources, the city might actually keep.
Ralph Smith, managing director of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading said that across many dialogues, producing a generation of high school graduates that are college and career ready is a consensus across the country.
"But we can't get there unless kids are reading at grade level by the end of third grade," Smith told a standing-room only audience in the Berkshire Museum's Crane Room on Wednesday afternoon.
He was joined at a podium there by Carolyn Lyons, president and CEO of Strategies for Children and John Bissell, co-chair of the Pittsfield Promise -- a coalition of more than 80 community leaders that has set the goal of having 90 percent of all third-graders in Pittsfield reading at grade level by the year 2020.
According to research by the Campaign for Grade-Level Read ing, reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Yet an annual average of 68 percent of students in the U.S. miss this benchmark.
Statistics from Strategies for Children's Early Education for All campaign find that only 61 percent of third-graders in the state and 51 percent in Pittsfield are scoring at a level of proficient or above on the Massa chusetts Comprehensive Assess ment System's third-grade reading exam. Success rates tend to decrease among children categorized as low-income and minority populations.
In his address at the museum on Wednesday, Bissell said the work of the Pittsfield Promise aims to "break down the walls and barriers of race and class."
"They are lofty goals but no more than what our community deserves and are very attainable," Bissell said.
The timing, support and momentum all seem right for the Pittsfield Promise initiative.
For one, Pittsfield is one of five communities Smith visited in the state this week because they are considered key communities in which efforts to improve third-grade reading are taking place. The others include Boston, Holyoke, Wor cester and Springfield. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading also awarded the commonwealth a "State Pace setter" honor to recognize its support of early childhood education.
"We had always thought western Massachusetts would lead a lot of these ways because its communities are small enough to make a difference," said Carolyn Lyons of Strategies for Children.
During the summer, Pitts field and Springfield were named All-America Cities, and Worcester was a finalist, based on the strength of its plans for addressing early literacy.
On Sept. 26, Gov. Deval Patrick signed into legislation "An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency," further supporting early literacy initiatives by advocating for curricula, better instruction, more teacher training, assessment and family partnership strategies.
On Oct. 12, the state also announced Pittsfield, via Berk shire United Way, as one of five communities to share $1 million in grant awards through the state Race to the Top funds to advance early learning partnerships. The other recipients include Square One of Spring field, Somerville Public Schools, Boston Public Schools and Thrive in 5/United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merri mack Valley in Boston. The funds will be disbursed over two years.