D id you know that only 52 percent of Berkshire County third-graders are reading proficiently and that children living in homes where family income is at or below the poverty rate have even greater challenges to developing early literacy skills?

Research demonstrates that 74 percent of children who struggle with reading in third grade will continue to struggle in school, are less likely to attend school every day, are more likely to fall behind their proficient classmates during the summer, and are six times more likely to drop out of school.

High school dropouts have fewer options for securing a job and becoming financially stable. This impacts the workforce available locally and has a significant economic impact on our community.

The good news is Berkshire United Way knows what works and that by working together as a community we can change the trend on third-grade reading proficiency. We know that children from low-income homes start school with a vocabulary significantly below that of non-low-income students. We know that a quality preschool experience ensures children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. According to economist James Heckman, investing $8,000 in early childhood education saves approximately $800,000 over the life of a child.

With many community partners, Berkshire United Way has set a goal that by 2020, 90 percent of Berkshire County third-graders will read proficiently. This is an aggressive goal and our children deserve our commitment to it. Several partnerships are in place to help ensure success. Pittsfield Promise, a local coalition of more than 80 experts, business leaders, and educators, is focused on family engagement, school attendance, and reducing the summer slide -- a condition that occurs when children are not engaged in literacy-rich, quality summer programs.

Berkshire Health Systems has partnered with Berkshire United Way to provide every new parent delivering a baby at Berkshire Medical Center with a "literacy bag," which includes a book, resources on early literacy development, a Berkshire Athenaeum library card application and a family pass to the Berkshire Museum. The bag also includes hands-on tools parents can use to increase vocabulary and literacy skills through reading, singing, playing and talking with their children -- emphasizing that literacy begins at birth. Nurses at Berkshire Medical Center personally hand these bags to parents and discuss the importance of literacy.

It’s essential that children’s experiences outside of school include literacy and learning so we have partnered with many community organizations to address the need for more before and after school and summer programs. The "Word of the Day" calendar was created by Pittsfield Promise partners and is designed to energize and engage the community in early literacy activities during the summer. Berkshire United Way also partnered with Greylock Federal Credit Union, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and the Pittsfield Public Schools to leverage funds to expand and enrich summer learning programs at Conte, Crosby, and Morningside Schools.

In South County, Berkshire United Way partners with Berkshire Hills Regional School district to fund Project Connection at Muddy Brook Elementary, a before and after school program for more than 200 kids -- half of whom come from low-income families with little access to literacy activities or whose first language is not English. Berkshire South Community Center, Multicultural BRIDGE, Flying Cloud Institute, and IS183 are community organizations that participate in Project Connection -- to enrich curriculum and increase family engagement to improve educational outcomes for children.

As you can see, Berkshire United Way is partnering with organizations across the county to improve early childhood literacy. You can help make a difference -- you can give, advocate or volunteer. Find Berkshire United Way and the Pittsfield Promise on Facebook to learn more about our early literacy strategies and how you can help create sustainable change in the Berkshires.

Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, berkshireunitedway.org.