Giving Back: Reading to Learn

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United Way of the Coastal Empire improves local lives through the power of literacy

Photography courtesy of  UNITED WAY OF THE COASTAL EMPIRE

WHEN ONE THINKS OF A CRUCIAL SCHOOL YEAR for students, the third grade might not be the first to spring to mind. But according to the United Way of the Coastal Empire (UWCE), this is the most pivotal grade level — the year when the curriculum shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. And if a student isn’t a proficient reader, it’s also the year they begin to fall behind.

Statistics from the Kids Count Data Center show that 70.9% of Chatham County third graders fell below the Proficient Learner status on the Georgia Milestones English Language Arts assessment in 2015. That means that nearly three in four students had not yet demonstrated proficiency in the knowledge and skills necessary at this grade level/course of learning, and the students would need substantial academic support to be prepared for the next grade level, as specified in Georgia’s content standards. In 2021, that number had risen to a shocking 77.2%.

Children sitting on floor and holding up books

The mission of UWCE is to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities — and improving literacy in Coastal Georgia stands out as a clear means of improving lives.

Why? The organization’s research revealed some alarming information: that children with reading difficulties are more likely to experience health and behavioral problems, teen pregnancy, premature departures from school, trouble sustaining employment and even poverty; that 66% of children in Georgia are below a proficient reading level; that 61% of low-income families in the United States do not have any books in their homes; that third grade students who are not proficient in reading by the end of the year are four times more likely to drop out of high school; and that by age 10, a child’s path to success is determined by their reading proficiency.

“A ready and resilient workforce is one of our four bold goal areas, and we recognize that if we don’t meet the earliest benchmarks, there’s no way we’ll make the later ones,” says Brynn Grant, president and CEO of UWCE. “We’re investing in the success of our youngest learners through a year-round series of programs and activities to improve early language and literacy — because the third graders of today will be our workforce tomorrow.”

Woman reading a book to two little girls
UWCE President and CEO Brynn Grant reads to a class as part of Read United Day.

“We’re investing in the success of our youngest learners through a year-round series of programs and activities to improve early language and literacy — because the third graders of today will be our workforce tomorrow.”

— Brynn Grant, president and CEO of UWCE

This series of programs is called Read United. Its earliest iteration began 15 years ago as the Reading Across Liberty program in Liberty County. It gradually expanded into Bryan and Effingham counties and, this past year, into Chatham County. 

Its most visible program so far has been Read United Day. Thanks to the generosity of sponsors and donors, in February 2023, the United Way was able to gift new books to more than 19,000 children in UWCE’s service area. Volunteers and community leaders also read to 950 pre-K through second grade classrooms in the region. This coming year, Read United Day is set for Jan. 26, and UWCE will need even more volunteers and books.

 Another program, Read United Buddies, is a collaboration with the Rotary Club of Savannah. It is an evidence-based, leveled reading program that advances students’ reading abilities by focusing on phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and reading instruction/phonemic awareness. For each pilot school, 20 second grade students receive one-on-one reading tutoring to support reading proficiency by the end of the third grade and beyond. Trained volunteers known as Read United Buddies commit to working with students twice a week for 30 minutes throughout the school year.

Male teacher reading a book to young students

In addition, Read United has recently joined forces with Malcolm Mitchell’s Share the Magic Foundation. Mitchell was a star wide receiver with the University of Georgia who went on to win Super Bowl LI with the New England Patriots. He is also someone who self-describes as having entered college at a junior high reading level. Today, he is an author and poet who helps and inspires young readers in a big way.

“A solid foundation in reading is paramount to a student’s success,” says Mitchell. “Share the Magic Foundation’s Reading Rally program is designed to boost reading skills and provide access to books for students in under-resourced communities. Through Share the Magic Foundation’s partnership with United Way of the Coastal Empire, we will be able to ensure that every second grade student in the Savannah area is able to open a book and discover the magic of reading.”

Over the past year, Read United has engaged local school districts in Share the Magic Foundation’s Virtual Reading Challenges: READCamp, READBowl and READMarathon, according to Grant. And this fall, United Way is introducing Malcolm Mitchell’s Reading Rallies in each county they serve.

The Reading Rally is an hour-long, high-energy pep rally with Mitchell. A live magician makes the reading experience even more exciting, and each student receives Mitchell’s book, “The Magician’s Hat,” to take home. 

With such winning programs helping to teach and inspire the students of Chatham County, odds are they will bring something else home, too: a love of reading.

This story and more in the September/October issue of Savannah magazine. Get your copy today.