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A child’s ability - or inability - to read by third grade is a roadmap to his future. Students who can read at grade level by then are more likely to succeed in school and ultimately in the workforce and life. That’s why United Way Quad Cities has embarked on a new initiative, Read United QC, to unite struggling readers with adult volunteers for one-on-one reading sessions. The community-wide campaign, unveiled recently, aims to help as many as 500 preschool to third-grade area students gain the reading skills necessary and close the reading gap. “Third grade reading proficiency is the biggest indicator if a student is going to graduate high school,” Rene Gellerman, president and CEO of United Way QC told the Quad Cities Business Journal. “Students who can read proficiently by then are five times more likely to be graduating high school and college.” Likewise, she said studies show that if a student isn’t proficient in reading by third grade “they are twice as likely to end up in jail or on welfare.” The need for the literacy initiative is even greater because COVID-19 has created an even wider proficiency gap. Before the pandemic, local studies found that 61% of third-grade students were meeting grade-level proficiency performance. But recent assessments show that now only 30% of third-graders are reading at grade level. (Worth noting, 30% of regional third-graders did not report test scores in 2020-2021, compared to only 7% in 2018-2019.) “By engaging students in books and with reading volunteers, we can give them the opportunity to practice reading and develop literacy skills so they are more likely to complete their education and obtain higher paying jobs,” Ms. Gellerman said in a news release. Through the initiative, United Way is partnering with school districts in Rock Island and Scott counties to provide individual reading help. Read United QC is being presented with support from Group O, based in Milan, and the Quad-City Times. “Education is the first step in crossing the opportunity divide,” Maria Ontiveros, corporate community liaison at Group O, said in the release. “We’re proud to partner with United Way Quad Cities to present this meaningful program to inspire young students to read, develop vocabulary skills and spark imagination …” HOW IT WORKS Read United QC will connect hundreds of Quad Cities volunteers with students for weekly one-on-one sessions at 14 area elementary schools – with one additional school opting for a virtual version. About 380 students have been referred to the program, to date, by teachers and care providers. But United Way expects the number of students needing the reading help and the number of participating schools to continue to grow. Sessions will take place weekdays during regular school hours and after school throughout the school year or summer. Read United will pair adult volunteers with pre-kindergarten to third-grade students to read together for 30 minutes a week. “For a student, youth literacy can lead to improved self-esteem, increased civic engagement, and a greater likelihood they’ll access good jobs and health care – it opens up opportunities for success in life,” Ms. Gellerman said. She added that education also “is the best pathway out of poverty.” VOLUNTEERS NEEDED United Way is working to recruit 500 volunteers, as a start, who will be tasked with reading with the students. Volunteers are invited to participate both in person or virtually, but more volunteers are needed to go into the schools. Anyone age 18 and older can volunteer. Volunteers must pass a background check and complete an hour-long virtual training session. United Way also is targeting college students, especially education majors, as well as retired teachers and parents to join the effort. “We’re looking for individuals willing to make the commitment, who care about our community and care about the future of our kids,” Ms. Gellerman said. To register, visit www.unitedwayqc.org/readunitedqc and select a day, time and location that works best with your schedule. Volunteers are allowed to co-volunteer – sign up with a spouse or friend – and share the duties. RENEWED EFFORT Read United QC is the latest effort by United Way to help assist young readers. In 2019 and before COVID restrictions closed schools’ doors to visitors, Ms. Gellerman said nearly 100 volunteers representing many Quad Cities companies worked with students on reading in the classroom. “At the end of the session, kids had improved their proficiency in reading anywhere from 85% to 100%. So we know the program works,” she said. By devoting 30 minutes a week for eight weeks, Read United QC volunteers can continue “to move the needle” on literacy, she said. In addition, volunteers’ presence and reading assistance will free up teachers to work with other students. “In the highest-need schools, there are more kids in need of extra reading support walking in the doors every morning than there are resources to support them effectively,” Ms. Gellerman said. In the agency’s release, Marci Zogg, United Way’s vice president of community impact, said books broaden a child’s horizon. “Students imagining themselves in books is one of the keys to early literacy, as it enables children to see themselves as heroes of their own story. When children fall in love with a book, they fall in love with reading as well. They learn they belong in the world, and the world belongs to them.” COLLECTIVE PRIORITY Ms. Gellerman credits the United Way Education Council with putting the problem of youth literacy on the region’s radar nearly a decade ago. The council, made up of superintendents, college representatives, business leaders and others, convened to take an in-depth look at what was happening between kindergarten and 12th grade. In creating the Quad Cities Data Exchange, she said all the region’s academic records were placed into a private data collection housed at St. Ambrose University. The exchange provided various partners with real data concerning education. “It was out of that data when we started to double down, redirecting our funding and other initiatives, to address (youth literacy) and look at the root cause,” she said. Of the Read United QC program, she said “We hope this campaign raises enough awareness that education becomes a priority for the Quad Cities.” While she is hopeful businesses will again step up and allow workers to become volunteers, she said it is the employers who also will benefit in the long run. “Beyond cultivating a future workforce, it’s a helpful tool for employee attraction and retention,” she said, adding “Employees want to know their companies care about their community.” The students Read United QC will serve are “a pipeline to our future,” Ms. Gellerman said.