By Doug Oakley Staff Writer Bay Area News Group email@example.com
OAKLAND -- As an accomplished orator, 10-year-old Rahsaan Smith knows that good public speaking requires excellent reading skills.
Smith, who took first place in the Martin Luther King Jr. Oakland Oratorical Fest in the Oakland schools, spoke Monday at a conference where education officials and politicians discussed how to make sure that students entering the third grade are reading at their grade level. The new initiative is called Oakland Reads 2020.
"When I first learned how to read, it didn't really mean anything to me," said Rahsaan, now a fifth-grader who recited a fiery King speech in which he stomped his feet for emphasis. "Now I understand you have to understand the speech in order to express it."
But if Rahsaan understands the importance of reading, many of his fellow students do not. Just 42 percent of Oakland third-graders read at their grade level, below the state average of 48 percent.
Oakland Reads aims to double that percentage in the next seven years by focusing on kindergarten readiness, improving attendance, doing a better job at summertime learning and getting families engaged.
At a news conference announcing the initiative, city and school officials offered few specifics and acknowledged they have very little money with which to do it.
The initiative has just $700,000 in donations to work from this year, said Brian Rogers, executive director of the Rogers Family Foundation, one of the groups involved.
"We will be looking for funding from nonprofits, foundations and the state," Rogers said.
The city of Oakland plans to help with the initiative, but it will not put any money into it, said Mayor Jean Quan. And the school district doesn't have any special money for the initiative either, said outgoing Superintendent Tony Smith.
Quan noted the connection between not being able to read well and the city's oppressive violence and high murder rate. It also has an effect on basic survival, she said.
"Reading is a predictor of whether a child will drop out of school or get involved with the law," Quan said. "So this is a public safety issue. Just to become a construction worker, you have to have a high school diploma."
She said one of the reasons the reading rate is so low in Oakland is that it has a high number of new residents from other countries.
Smith said getting kids to come to school is one of the most important of the four areas the initiative will work on.
"When the little ones miss a month of school or come late, they are not getting the literacy instruction they need," Smith said. "So this is really about engaging much earlier."
DougOakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at twitter.com/douglasoakley