Getting a jump-start on reading

Literacy effort to give kindergarteners backpacks with books and supplies

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PITTSFIELD — Rising kindergarteners in the Berkshires and their families will get a back-to-school boost in June through the newest Berkshire United Way Day of Caring campaign.

Officially touted in a Thursday morning press conference held at the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires, the annual Day of Caring this year will bring together on June 7, more than a hundred employees from program sponsor, Berkshire Bank, to help fill 1,200 new "literacy kit backpacks" with books, school supplies and resources for families emphasizing the development of early literacy habits.

A countywide distribution will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 21, across eight community locations hosting literacy pop-up parties, all offered at no cost to children and families.

The 30 adults and about 60 young children in the audience all appreciated the gesture with applause and smiles, but there was also some serious talk about why literacy-focused events and actions are needed in the county.

Various studies implicate the importance of children reading at proficient literacy rate by the third grade as a predictor of their long-term success. It's the age when a child is no longer learning to read, but reading to learn to comprehend various subjects. That's why Berkshire United Way has been working with the community in recent years with the focus to improve third-grade reading proficiency rates from a median of 51 percent to 90 percent by 2020.

Organizers said it should be an issue of great concern that, since this goal was established in 2012, that about half of students, by the time they reach Grade 3, are still struggling to read with ease.

"Frankly, that is unacceptable," said Gary Levante, assistant vice president for community engagement at Berkshire Bank, who is co-chairing the Day of Caring with his colleague, Berkshire Bank Foundation Director Lori Gazzillo.

"We expect more from our community and we can do more for our community," Levante said.

Gazillo said the literacy kit backpacks are "one way to create sustainable change" with this learning gap.

The problem with stagnated literacy rates is perpetuated by a number of issues, including an increasing rate of poverty in various communities.

"At the same time we're working on this, poverty rates are going up, and about half of our young kids are not going to a quality preschool program," said Berkshire United Way President and CEO Kristine Hazzard.

In Pittsfield, between the 2014-2015 school year and the current year, the rate of Pittsfield students facing an economic disadvantage rose from 43 percent to nearly 50 percent, according to state data. During the same timeframe in North Adams, the rate of students facing an economic disadvantage rose from about 53 to 59 percent.

Estimating the true change of rates of literacy and relating them to shifts in the poverty rates is a bit tricky, since the state standardized reading/English language arts assessments at the third grade level have changed multiple times over the past five years, and different districts use different in-house metric systems to evaluate literacy rates. But it's fair to say that reaching a third-grade literacy rate of 90 percent by 2020 is a challenge that won't be solved by book bags alone.

"We know children are falling behind but [through this effort] we are able to give children something they might not be able to get otherwise before they go to school in the fall," said Christa Collier, executive director of Northern Berkshire United Way.

"We've got a lot of work to do, so we realized the earlier we start to work on that the better," Hazzard said.

In the 3-year-old program at the Boys & Girls Club, for example, students are now being taught to recognize and write their own names, said lead teacher Cynthia Mole, as she led a line of youngsters to a post-press conference book giveaway. "These kids love this stuff," she said.

The local United Way is also partnered with a few other initiatives, including the Pittsfield Promise campaign for early childhood literacy, the Early Childhood Impact Council, and the Chapter One: South County Reads initiative, all working toward similar goals to support kids and families.

The latter initiative works on getting business leaders, social workers, pediatricians and other community members invested in the cause.

Said the Rev. Sam Smith, pastor of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, a volunteer with the movement, "Helping kids get a good start is the key to a good future."

About Berkshire County Literacy Kit Backpacks

What: A total of 1,200 book bags will be distributed to children entering kindergarten this fall. Each backpack contains: a book and companion activity guide; a recommended reading list for incoming kindergarteners; a Berkshire Book House flier; crayons and various school supplies; a personal note from a Berkshire Bank book bag volunteer.

Distribution date: 4-7 p.m., Wednesday, June 21.

Where: Williamstown Youth Center, Childcare of the Berkshires, The Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires' Pittsfield site, Dalton CRA, Lenox Community Center, Lee Bank branch in Lee, Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington, and a Sheffield site (TBD).

Info and sponsorship opportunities: Berkshire United Way at 413-442-6948


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