‘It Is A Crisis’: United Way Launches Campaign To Improve Winnebago County’s Low Child Literacy Rates


United Way of Rock River Valley has partnered with more than 30 local organizations to launch a new initiative focused on improving Winnebago County’s literacy rates.

United for Literacy sets out to more than double the percentage of children who are reading at grade level by the third grade. Right now, roughly one in three third-graders read at grade level in Winnebago County, according to data United Way compiled from the Illinois State Board of Education.

“It is a crisis,” said Mark Baldwin, chairman of the United Way’s board of directors. “I know crisis is a strong word, but it’s appropriate to describe the state of child literacy in the region because if you can’t read at grade level by the time you enter fourth grade, the chances are that you’ll never catch up.”

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Illinois Report Card data from 2022 shows an average of 32% of third graders in Winnebago County’s 10 school districts meet or exceed state standards for English language arts. The rate is 16% in Rockford Public Schools and 14% in the Harlem School District.

United Way’s goal is to improve the rate to 75% in Winnebago County by 2034.

“If you can’t read proficiently, you’re never going to be consumer or economically literate, medically literate, civically literate or information literate, and a healthy democracy requires citizens who can distinguish facts from their lesser cousins,” Baldwin said.

United Way announced the start of the campaign Thursday at Patriots Gateway Community Center, which is one 13 recipients of funding as part of the initiative. United Way will award $400,000 in total this year, which it hopes to grow in the coming years.

“Literacy and the ability to read is the foundation for children’s success. We have found that this foundational skill catapults them into successful adulthood,” said Julie Bosma, president and CEO of United Way. “By creating United for Literacy with so many incredible organizations and partners, we are providing the tools and resources to create a community full of readers, which in turn means a successful and thriving community as a whole.”

The effort includes providing books and literacy kits for families with newborns at UW Health SwedishAmerican Hospital and Mercyhealth’s Javon Bea Hospital. The initiative also includes recruiting tutors for the Boys & Girls Club of Rockford, adding a book vending machine at Crusader Clinic and providing reading and school readiness materials at local churches, Discovery Center, Patriots Gateway Center, Rockford Park District facilities, public libraries and other locations.

“We at Rockford Public Library have long understood the value of parents and caregivers serving as children’s first teachers,” said Lynn Stainbrook, executive director of the Rockford Public Library. “This new literacy initiative and funding helps train professionals in the community about early literacy development and offer countless resources which effectively help these parents and caregivers teach little ones all they need to learn in order to help them learn to read.”

This summer, Patriots Gateway worked with two professional educators to incorporate new techniques and teaching methods to help kids improve their reading and math. That work will continue during the school year with its after-school programs. Every kid in the summer camp also went home with a bag of books appropriate for their grade level.

“Some of the kids who came into our summer camp didn’t know how to read, or some of them were way below third-grade level,” said Natalie Wooden, program director at Patriots Gateway. “Our camp ran for nine weeks … and at the end we had kids who were so, so excited to say, ‘I can go home and I can read to my little brother, I understand what the words on the page say.’ And that was something that was so amazing to see.”

United Way and its partners will monitor the programs to determine what is working and make changes as needed, Bosma said. The nonprofit hired Karen Walker of Rockford University to develop metrics that will track the initiative’s success.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re moving the needle,” Bosma said. “We’ve got to know if we’re making a difference. It just can’t be business as usual.”

The work to improve literacy rates needs to begin before students get to schools, said Harlem School District Superintendent Terrell Yarbrough.

“Research tells us that 80% of brain growth and development happens in the first three years of life with kids learning their first 1,000 words,” he said. “So it’s very, very, very important … that we’re reading to our littles, even before they get into our schools. The only way that we can really do that is to drive home the importance of reading in our homes, providing the books, providing the resources.”

Bosma said no one organization or group is to blame for the county’s low literacy rates, but it will take a collaborative effort to make improvements. She called on people to volunteer, donate or otherwise make sure they’re doing their part at home to prepare children to read.

“Every one of you have to do something,” she said. “You have got to step up.”