Learning to read can be tough for many Denton County students, but a recent study shows that the task is even more difficult for kids from low-income households — and more of them than ever are falling behind.
In its 2017 Community Needs Assessment, the United Way of Denton County found the number of "economically disadvantaged" third-graders reading at grade level in Denton County dropped 10 percentage points in four years. The agency studied state test scores in local public schools and noted the drop from 80 percent of children reading at grade level in 2012 to 70 percent in 2016.
"It is really concerning, but it's multifaceted," said Alicia Froidl, United Way's director of education and workforce initiatives. "You really can't just say there's one thing that causes it. It's one of those huge, complex issues that doesn't have just one approach that's going to work."
Most students who are considered "economically disadvantaged" participate in free or reduced-price lunch programs at school.
The Denton County numbers follow a similar trend statewide. In Texas, 65 percent of economically disadvantaged third-graders were reading at grade level in 2016, compared to 69 percent in 2012.
But Denton County's rate is dropping much faster. The county's rapid growth may partially contribute to the problem, Froidl said. A bigger population can bring more economically disadvantaged students, more English language learners and more kids who are considered homeless. Students with those challenges traditionally struggle in school.
Third grade is a critical time for students in their education. Up to third grade, kids are learning to read. Once they get into the fourth grade, kids read to learn.
"From that point forward, you already have to have those reading skills established to fully take in the subjects from there on out," Froidl said. "Once those students who are struggling in third grade start moving forward, the achievement gap is even greater to make up."
The community may look to the schools to bring kids up to speed, but the preparation for learning how to read starts much earlier than third grade, Froidl said.
Research shows that 61 percent of low-income kids have no children's books to read at home. By age 5, a typical child in a middle-income household knows 22 letters in the alphabet. Five-year-olds in a low-income household typically know only nine letters.
"Unfortunately, it creates this cycle where children who are in households that aren't earning as much don't have access to quality child care or early childhood initiatives," Froidl said. "Those kids are four times more likely to drop out of school and then they're less likely to be productive later in life."
The potential effects of more high school dropouts are well-known: an unskilled workforce, increased poverty levels, more drug usage and more crime. Denton County has 40,751 students currently at risk of dropping out of school.
But United Way is working on bringing schools, parents and existing nonprofits to the table to carve out solutions.
One fix enrolls more kids in prekindergarten. The total enrollment of Denton County pre-K programs has been trending upward, from 2,882 children in 2012 to 3,216 in 2016. But that fix has its own problems, Froidl said.
"You can qualify for free pre-K if you meet certain standards, but that's only a half-day," Froidl said. "That puts working parents in a bit of a lurch because they only have care for their kid for half a day. What do you do for the other half?"
Several of the office's initiatives include working with parents.
Froidl said she wants to make sure pregnant women have access to proper prenatal care. A new program, Working Families Success, launches in January. It helps people get certificates through North Central Texas College and move them into higher-paying jobs.
For children in school, the United Way's Early Childhood Coalition is setting up various parenting resources families can find at their child's school. The Family Learning Center is an ongoing program at Denton's Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center. Upcoming topics include children's health care, safety and parent resources.
"A lot of parents just simply don't know the easy ways to start to incorporate learning," Froidl said. "It can be as simple as taking five to 10 minutes to read a picture book before bed."
United Way is also launching a program in January geared toward child care workers. Though the event is open to the public, the goal is to teach child care workers how to incorporate more educational activities at day care centers.
"That's what we're trying to create: equal access regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of the neighborhood you live in, regardless of race or ethnicity," Froidl said. "If we don't start increasing our resources, then we're not going to be able to keep up with the needs. If we have a community with a shared vision and a shared goal, and we're working collaboratively, we're much more likely to succeed."
For more information on United Way programs, go to www.unitedwaydenton.org.
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.