PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

SWFL faces reading crisis: Proficiency falls below 50%

Fewer than half of Southwest Florida's third graders are currently reading at grade level as reading skills have declined across the state in recent years.

Collaboratory, in partnership with FutureMakers Coalition, recently recognized International Literacy Day at Night Market – a quarterly event – in downtown Fort Myers by highlighting an initiative to improve reading scores across the region. The coalition is a network of organizations working to increase the education and skill level of adults in the region, beginning with early childhood education.

FutureMakers’ goal is to ensure at least 85% of third graders in SWFL are proficient in reading. According to The Florida Scorecard, which measures progress in Florida economies and communities, 49.6% of third graders in the five-county region are at grade level.

“A child who isn't reading at third-grade proficiency standards is already on a path to not being able to achieve,” Tessa LeSage, director of FutureMakers, said. “And it just perpetuates poverty and other issues that the community faces.”

FutureMakers data shows that 51.1% of SWFL third graders were reading at grade level for the 2021-22 academic year, a decrease from 53.6% for the 2020-21 school year. No data is available for 2019-20 because of the COVID pandemic.

“Third-grade reading proficiency is a direct indicator of high school graduation,” LeSage said. “Having a high school diploma or a GED is really a prerequisite to get into any other training or education programs to help you get the skills that are needed to get into a well-paying job.”

Collier County had the highest rate of third-grade reading proficiency for 2022 at 59.2%. For Lee County, 47.7% of third graders achieved reading proficiency. Hendry County ranked lowest at 39.8%.

At Night Market, local vendors showcased their businesses and their support for reading. Fort Myers officials highlighted the importance of reading and hosted story time for young children.

Newly named Fort Myers Chief of Police Jason Fields, who read stories about law enforcement, said improving proficiency is important because reading is a lifelong skill no matter the person's profession.

“I've been doing this for over 20 years,” Fields said, referring to his time on the police force. “And I'm still having to read every single day.”

He added: “You’re never too old or never too young to start learning to read."

Fort Myers resident Jackie Natali and her three school-aged children participated in Fields’ reading. Natali said she has concerns about the county scores.

“I always tell my kids that talking to people is so important,” she said. “And, you know, reading helps with that, too, because they have a larger vocabulary. Never in your life is speaking not going to be important, for jobs, for everything.”

Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson read three books, including “The Berenstain Bears and Mama for Mayor!”

“If a child can't read, they’re going to struggle with learning math and science and every other subject,” Anderson said. “And I think the best thing we can do for our children is make sure that by the time they hit kindergarten, they've been exposed to books.”

Fort Myers Fire Chief Tracy McMillion was also part of story time. “If you can read, you can pretty much do anything because ability to read just opens up so many different doors and just allows you to excel in so many different areas,” he said.

Lari Moore, also from Fort Myers, was at Night Market with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter. Though her daughter is not in school yet, she has concerns about children falling behind and reads to her daughter regularly.

“I think a lot of it starts at home,” Moore said. “And I feel like a lot of the issue is probably access to books.”

“I think a lot of the inequities we have in our community…really begin with early childhood education,” she said. “The more we can do as a community to bring books and to bring education to that age group is really, really critical.”

The Lee County Bookmobile was also set up at the event, and staff members were signing up people for library cards and checking out books.

Birmary Cruz, the adult programming coordinator for the library system, was informing residents of the programs that the 13 Lee County library branches offer. In addition to summer reading programs, she said story time is important for the young ones.

“We try to…encourage them, and their parents as well, to practice with them, read to them,” she said. “Because reading to them every day is what’s going to help build that language.”

Heather Daugherty from Fort Myers brought her sixth grader to the event. She said her daughter, who was excited to get a library card at the bookmobile, has been dealing with the academic effects of the pandemic for years.

“She's under grade level on reading because of remote school and the years out of the classroom for second and third grade,” Daugherty said, adding that they lived in New York during the pandemic. “It's been playing catch-up since second grade.”

Daugherty, who works for Scholastic, said that “digital candy” is also an issue. “This generation is dealing with quick entertainment on their iPads, their phones, their tablets,” she said. “It's hard to compete with an analog thing like a book.”

Bethany Quisenberry, the director of elementary curriculum of the Lee County School District said that third-grade reading scores for 2022-23 dropped 8% for the county and 6% statewide from the prior year.

“Students that were in third grade last year were the students that were in kindergarten the year that we had the stay-at-home,” she said, referring to the pandemic. “Kindergarten students were doing school all of fourth quarter from home.”

The fourth quarter of kindergarten, she said, is when students are beginning to learn how to read by blending letters and sounding out words.

“We found that the following year, when they came back to school, there were already holes,” Quisenberry said, meaning the students who were first graders in the 2020-21 school year.

That year, 50% of students opted for remote learning. Then that same cohort returned for second grade and dealt with quarantining.

“They hadn’t had a normal year in their entire schooling,” she said. “We really saw that when they got into third grade.”

“Typically, when you get to third grade, you’re beginning to read to learn, not learning to read,” she added.

LeSage said the pandemic put a strain on already challenging numbers. Then Hurricane Ian was a “huge disruption.” Now many families cannot afford high-quality early education, which prevents children from being kindergarten-ready.

She said many families are “one emergency away from becoming homeless.” She was referring to ALICE — the United Way Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed population -– people who are above the poverty level but make less than the cost of living. FutureMakers reports that 42% of Lee County households were at or below the ALICE threshold in 2021.

That same year, 53.7% of Lee County kindergartners started school already behind. “The struggle that our community has had, it is showing its impact on our students,” LeSage said.

Mike Martin, former interim CEO of Collaboratory and recently retired FGCU president, played a role in choosing literacy as the topic for Night Market. He said addressing the low literacy rate involves improving adult literacy, as well as focusing on early education.

“While we rebuild from a major hurricane, let’s also think about what we can do in the process that will ensure that the future will be better not only when a hurricane hits but all the time,” Martin said.

Martin said that Florida ranks 42nd in adult literacy, as reflected in a National Center of Education Statistics report.

“I think if we don’t do it now, we’ll have problems that will last for a long, long time,” he said. “We need to make sure that the workforce of the future is not only up to meeting our needs but [is] dynamic and capable of changing with the times. And it starts with 4-year-olds.”

FutureMakers is seeking funding to pilot free before- and after-school programs to help students get ahead. Another initiative would include trained volunteers coming into the schools to tutor students.

The Lee County district also has implemented free tutoring programs, and some students have been offered Saturday camps and summer school. The 45-minute reading intervention blocks during the school day have been increased to 60 minutes.

In addition, the district has an early-learning expansion committee that is working on providing additional VPK opportunities. For instance, all new schools will have prekindergarten classrooms, like Amanecer Elementary in Lehigh Acres, which opened this year.

Though reading scores need improvement, Quisenberry said LCSD is hopeful as this year’s kindergarteners are more at grade level than the kids that came in last year.

“I think that we’re on an upward trend,” she said. “I think that, unfortunately, that cohort group of third-grade kiddos got hit the hardest with the pandemic.”

This story was reported and written for the Democracy Watch program, a collaboration between FGCU Journalism and WGCU News. Gwendolyn Salata can be reached at gwendolyn.salata@yahoo.com.