PaHoua Vang ended the day at her transitional kindergarten class in downtown Fresno with a song.
She began: "R-E-D, R-E-D, I can spell red," and 13 boys and girls chimed in "hi, ho, did you know fire trucks are red, stop signs are red -- R-E-D. R-E-D."
The words were projected onto a screen for the children to follow. The 4-year-old students were not reading them, but it didn't matter. They had learned "red," a new word to add to their vocabulary, which they need to build to be ready to read.
Across the central San Joaquin Valley, school districts are focusing attention and resources on preparing young children to read. And whole communities have adopted "birth to grade 3" reading initiatives.
Investing in early literacy programs makes educational and economic sense, educators and community leaders say. A child who has an early foundation in reading is more likely to be a successful reader by third grade -- a pivotal milestone in a child's education. Through the third grade, students are learning to read -- but after that, they are reading to learn.
And without early reading skills, students fall behind academically. Research shows those not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four to six times less likely to graduate from high school.
In the Valley, increasing third-grade reading proficiency is critical: Last year 42% of third-grade students in Fresno County were proficient or advanced in reading, according to state tests. Third-graders fared worse elsewhere: In Madera County, only 32% were proficient or advanced in reading, in Tulare County, 34%, and 39% in Kings County.
"We know we have a lot of work cut out for us," said Mercedes Carmona, program officer at First 5 Fresno County. First 5 provides funding for programs geared to children from birth to age 5.
Improving third-grade reading proficiency rates has to start long before third grade and involve community support for parents and children, education experts say.
"It's really the communities' and families' and the schools' shared responsibility to foster children's literacy and development," said Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
In Fresno County a school/community partnership has developed, called A Birth Through Third Grade Challenge, to address reading readiness and improve grade level reading proficiency.
The partnership involves five school districts and several community organizations that are focused on improving third grade reading proficiency.
The partnership programs include:
-- Fowler Unified is collaborating with public libraries to have bimonthly infant/toddler story times for parents and children.
-- Kings Canyon Unified is offering parent education programs, including literacy and citizenship and an English tutoring class.
-- Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified is working with First 5 to increase parent engagement and expand preschool opportunities for children.
The reading challenge's goal: a 20% improvement in third-grade reading proficiency at the end of three years, Carmona said. "We know school districts can't do it alone and we can't do it alone, but united we can make a difference," she said.
Besides First 5, community partners in the reading challenge include the Fresno County Office of Education, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Early Edge California, an advocacy organization focused on increasing access to high-quality preschool programs.
Other early literacy efforts are underway in Fresno County.
The Children's Movement of Fresno, an advocacy organization, has focused community attention on reading at grade level by third grade.
"We're building a network and we've broken down categories that are related to grade level reading -- attendance, school readiness and summer learning," said manager Linda Gleason.
Gleason said projects that have sprung from The Children's Movement include a summer reading challenge that provided books and reading journals to children and culminated in a backpack giveaway at a Grizzlies game in June; an effort to improve the quality of preschools and day care centers; and a move to get more children screened for developmental delays by the time they are 3.
Overcoming the odds
Children in poverty and those who are English language learners are more at risk of reading below grade level and stand to gain the most from literacy programs in the Valley.
According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, a third of children nationwide are proficient readers by the end of third grade, but 80% of low-income children score below proficient on a fourth-grade reading assessment. Ninety percent of English language learners score below proficient.
For years, providing early literacy programs to low-income children has been a focus of Reading and Beyond, a Fresno nonprofit.
The organization offers tutoring to students, operates a preschool and has "family navigators" who visit families in their homes to help parents get children ready to read.
The home visits are designed to encourage parents to get involved in their children's education, but they also connect families to social services such as health and housing.
The navigators know families can be stressed.
"You can't arrive to find an eviction note on their door and expect them to listen to how their child is going to learn," said Luis Santana, executive director.
Early language and literacy development starts at birth, and helping parents is a cornerstone of early literacy programs in the Valley.
Madera Unified School District, in partnership with First 5 Madera County, offers learning opportunities once a month for parents. Family advocates and learner supporters bring the families together and help them understand their role in their children's education, said Chinayera Black-Hardaman, executive director of First 5 Madera County.
The family advocates also go to homes and help families who need resources, whether it's books for children or food for the family, she said. "You or I might go to Target and Walmart and easily buy a quality pre-kindergarten book, but some of these families are just trying to meet their basic needs."
Another need: Not all children have attended preschool before starting kindergarten, Black-Hardaman said.
First 5 Madera County provides a Pre-K University, a short, intensive program to get children ready for school. For example, they learn to line up, sit on a carpet and engage in story time, she said.
Providing a quality preschool experience for children is an early-literacy priority in Fresno County. A 2013 kindergarten entrance assessment found about 37% of students in the county were ready for school.
The assessment gave a nudge to school districts to invest more funds in preschool programs.
Getting an early start
But across the Valley, students still arrive without preschool experience at kindergarten -- or at transitional kindergarten, a bridge to kindergarten for children whose fifth birthdays fall between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.
For the past three years, California has required school districts to provide transitional kindergarten classes. Districts must use a modified curriculum that is age- and developmentally appropriate.
In Vang's transitional kindergarten class this year at Jefferson Elementary, only three students had gone to preschool. After three years of teaching transitional kindergarten, Vang said she's discovered that students who have gone to preschool come to her ready to follow school rules, know part of the alphabet and have a good vocabulary for their age.
Preschool experience or not, transitional kindergartners are young, she said, and this year's class seems especially so. "They're tiny -- they're like babies."
Vang said her students benefit from the program, which allows her to use singing to teach language, for example. The learning is at a slower pace than traditional kindergarten, she said. "In kindergarten, everything moves fast, fast, fast."
Joseph Guardado is happy his son, Elijah, 4, is in Vang's transitional kindergarten class. He was too young to go to preschool last year, he said. "Now, when he gets to kindergarten, I'm pretty sure he'll know everything."
Chanmany Xaysaenglattana has mixed emotions about her daughter, Traymoni Edwards, 4, who is in Vang's class. Her daughter also didn't go to preschool, but she's not sure Traymoni needs the transitional class.
"She's very active and smart," she said, "but again, I guess she'll be smarter than her class."
Teachers say early literacy experiences, whether on a parent's knee listening to a story or in a preschool or transitional kindergarten classroom, add up to a student who's more likely to be a successful reader in third grade.
Jacqueline Sims-Esquivel, who teaches third grade at Ayer Elementary in southeast Fresno, said about half her class began this year reading at grade level. Getting all students proficient by the end of the year is a challenge, she said, but early literacy programs are working.
"I expect to see kids in a year or two with a much better handle on reading."