Fort Worth literacy project takes aim at 3rd-grade reading levels

Aliyah Burdos, 5, receives a copy of I Like Me from Mayor Betsy Price during the announcement of the Fort Worth literacy project at Oakhurst Elementary school in Fort Worth Monday morning.
Aliyah Burdos, 5, receives a copy of I Like Me from Mayor Betsy Price during the announcement of the Fort Worth literacy project at Oakhurst Elementary school in Fort Worth Monday morning. Special to the Star-Telegram

Fort Worth’s academic gaps aren’t just barriers to higher learning; they are economic roadblocks that keep businesses from investing in the community, officials said Monday in formally announcing a childhood literacy project.

“Education is economic development,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price told the crowd of city, business and school leaders gathered at Oakhurst Elementary School. “… If you’re not literate, you’re not succeeding.”

Price, Fort Worth schools Superintendent Kent Scribner and Matt Rose, executive chairman of BNSF Railway, are leading the Fort Worth literacy project, which aims to have 100 percent of the Fort Worth school district’s third-grade students reading at grade level by 2025.

“We want our students ready to read so they can be ready to lead,” Scribner said.

Today, only 30 percent of the school district’s third-graders are reading at grade level.

“That is unacceptable,” said Scribner, who called on the community to help the distrct work to improve the systems that educate children.

86,400total enrollment of Fort Worth school district

Price, Rose and Scribner all talked about how strong academics help create a future pipeline of workers. Price said that hit home when two companies passed on Fort Worth because of its schools and went to Austin instead.

The project will be driven by data and depend heavily on the contributions from the business, civic, education and nonprofit communities to map out where there are academic successes that can be replicated at struggling schools.

It’s not going to be acceptable long term to have our largest school district not graduating and not preparing students to read.

Matt Rose, executive chairman of BNSF Railway

Among top concerns is that too many kindergarten students show up for class not knowing their numbers, colors or how to work in groups, Scribner has said. For example, while 80 percent of Fort Worth’s 4-year-olds attend preschool, 50 percent of them are not kindergarten-ready, Scribner said.

The third grade is critical, Price said, because that is when students go from “learning to read to reading to learn.”

“We are really focusing on zero to third grade,” Rose said. “We know that if they don’t show progress in third grade reading then they aren’t capable in fourth, fifth and sixth grade. The data shows that.”

Rose talked in detail about the project’s path and while immediate gains may not be seen, the goal is to see “systematic change.”

Rose talked about the importance of defining and expanding successful reading programs in all schools and how effort will also focus finding “long-term strategies for teaching excellence.”

“We will need your support,” Rose said.

Students who don’t read on grade level are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Kristin Sullivan, former associate vice president for communications at UT-Arlington, will be the project’s executive director.

The foundation’s funding will likely come from businesses and philanthropic foundations, Price said. Money will not come from city coffers; instead, the city will make its contribution through programs and employee training.

“It’s going to be its own stand-alone effort,” Rose said of the project. “It’s not going to be part of the city or part of the school board.”

The literacy project is supported by several entities, including the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Miles Foundation, the Amon G. Carter Foundation and The Commit! Partnership.

The project was announced at Oakhurst, a school northeast of downtown Fort Worth with 650 students. Students at that elementary school are described as 93 percent economically disadvantaged, but during the 2015 STAAR reading test, the school outperformed the district average.

79percent of all Fort Worth students are economically disadvantaged

Price said that community leaders have been working on the childhood literacy project for two years and that they have been in contact with other cities that have addressed the topic, including Milwaukee, Tulsa, Dallas and Houston.

She said that while the 87,000-student Fort Worth school district “is where we’re starting,” the issue stretches across Tarrant County.

She said the project is “about action” and “about moving the needle.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1