San Mateo County receives $7.5 million federal grant for education improvements

Up to 42 percent of third-graders in San Mateo County do not have adequate reading and writing skills

Up to 42 percent of third-graders in San Mateo County do not have adequate reading and writing skills

A $7.5 million federal grant will go toward efforts to improve third-grade literacy levels in San Mateo County, where statistics show as many as 42 percent of third-graders lack adequate reading and writing skills.

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is one of seven recipients in the U.S. of the Social Innovation Fund grant. The foundation was awarded the investment after a highly competitive application process, and it may end up receiving an additional $9 million, bringing the total to $16.5 million over five years.

The group plans to apply a majority of the funds toward research and data analysis, said Erica Wood, foundation chief community impact officer. Analyzing attendance data, for example, will allow the group to determine if deficiencies in reading and writing performance may stem from chronic school absences in younger grades, she explained.

“A lot of districts don't necessarily know at an individual student level who's missing school and who's not,” Wood said. “So there's an effort under way to work with the districts to really analyze their attendance data by grade level and by student.”

By identifying students with recurring attendance issues, schools can then determine how to best address the problems individually, she said. For example, a school could help a student with transportation if it has found that student has difficulty finding a ride to school, or a school could make adjustments to accommodate a particular student's health needs, she explained.

During summers off, students sometimes experience what's referred to as “learning loss,” where essentially they'll forget or lose the knowledge and skills they had accumulated during the school year. In response, grant funding will be used to research summer reading and education programs as well, and to determine what methods most effectively help kids retain information.

“We don't have a breadth of data on summer programming, so we're going to try to identify best practices, proven models, and see how we can adapt those to specific communities in San Mateo County,” Wood said. “I think that's a particularly exciting element of this project.”

In addition to the federal grant, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors made a $10 million commitment to this education effort, known as The Big Lift, this year.

“We're well on our way to be able to do some groundbreaking work,” Wood said.

Compounding reports that more than 40 percent of third-graders lack adequate reading proficiency across the board in San Mateo County, are statistics indicating that the deficiency rises to over 50 percent when isolating Latino, black and Pacific Islander populations.

“While we live in one of the most affluent, prosperous places in the country, if not the world, third-graders aren't reading proficiently. And those facts are completely unacceptable,” Wood said.

Wood and others involved with The Big Lift hope the dedicated efforts to evaluating data and best practices will help improve reading and writing in elementary schools and provide a model for other communities in California and the U.S.

“So many things hinge on whether our kids hit educational benchmarks,” Wood said. “There's a lot of data that shows that if they don't, they're likely to be underemployed and unemployed in their adult lives.”

Furthermore, some data show that students who don't reach benchmarks are more likely to rely on government services as adults. There are also statistics that correlate higher crime and incarceration rates with lower school performance.

Before the work begins, the community foundation will develop an application process for organizations hoping to be involved in The Big Lift. Wood said the foundation hopes to begin the work in earnest with its new community partners at the start of 2015.

Bay Area NewsErica WoodPeninsulaSan Mateo CountySilicon Valley Community Foundation

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