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$691K to fund literacy programs

Literacy is a key indicator of a child’s success later in life, but more than half of Sonoma County third graders are falling behind – only 46 percent read at or above proficiency. That number is even lower in Sonoma Valley, where just 43 percent of third graders are reading at their grade level.

To combat these startling statistics, Sonoma’s Harvest Wine Auction is working to ensure 90 percent of Sonoma County’s third-grade students are proficient in reading on the state’s STAR test by 2018.

“The vintners and growers of Sonoma County are really committed to building this momentum,” said Honore Comfort, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners, which produces the Harvest Wine Auction with the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance.

New this year, the auction’s “Fund the Future” lot raised money for three charities with a proven track record at improving literacy rates – the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, the United Way of the Wine Country’s Schools of Hope and Pasitos (Little Steps). The lot allows bidders to donate any amount to support the cause, which created an explosion of paddles on Sunday as bids shot up to $691,250, including three separate donations of $75,000 each, shattering all previous records. That single lot accounted for about half of the auction’s total $1.4 million take, and that’s just the beginning.

“We’re making a multi-year commitment to this effort,” said Maureen Cottingham, co-producer of the auction, explaining that this campaign will continue for the next three years at the Harvest Wine Auction. “We decided we needed to take a stand and focus on one area where we could make a big difference.”

Students who are proficient in reading by third grade are more likely to graduate high school and find jobs. However, two-thirds of students who aren’t literate by fourth grade will spend time behind bars, according to the One World Literacy Foundation.

“(Auction) funds will go directly into the growth of our summer reading academy,” said Laura Zimmerman, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.

Aimed at keeping kids engaged during the summer months, and organized by Diane Dalenburg, the reading academy at El Verano Elementary School hosted nearly 100 third-grade students from across the district for three weeks of literary experiences last June.

“She really focuses on finding books that get kids excited about reading,” Zimmerman said of Dalenburg. “It’s just like summer camp. It helps kids remember that they absolutely love to read.”

The program invites students who are falling behind in reading to spend three hours a day working in small groups with teachers and other volunteers to improve not only their ability to read, but also their access to intriguing books. The data backs up the program’s success – in 2012, 58 percent of students who attended the summer reading academy improved their state STAR Enterprise Reading score. Zimmerman said the additional funding from the auction will allow the Education Foundation to bring the reading academy to even more students.

“Why not second-graders? Why not first-graders? Let’s work with them when they’re young and see the improvement early on, before they start falling behind,” she said. (Find out more about the summer reading academy at svgreatschools.org.)

The Education Foundation also works with the United Way on Schools of Hope, a program that brings volunteers into schools to read with kids one-on-one. Spanning much of the county, including every public elementary school in Sonoma Valley, the nonprofit effort currently supports 500 students, with plans to expand thanks to “Fund the Future.”

“Ultimately, the program is designed to get kids to graduate on time, and third-grade reading proficiency is a huge indicator of graduation rates,” said Mike Kallhoff, chief executive officer of the United Way of the Wine Country. “It’s about making sure the program really makes a difference long-term.”

With Schools of Hope, students who need extra support spend 30 minutes twice a week reading with a volunteer during a school time selected by their teacher. Kallhoff said it’s important for the program to take place during school hours, because many families have trouble shuttling children to after school programs. Like the reading academy, STAR testing figures show the program is making an impact. In 2012, third-grade reading proficiency increased 3 percent across all Sonoma County schools; but at Schools of Hope schools, the increase was measured at 7 percent. It’s proved so popular, many schools now have a waiting list of students eager to participate.

“That’s been one of our biggest issues, we need more tutors,” said Kallhoff. “(The auction funds) are really going to let us expand in the way we need to be expanded.”

In addition to growing to include more schools, Kallhoff said funds would also be used to recruit more volunteer readers, with the goal of bringing in 800 volunteers this school year. Volunteers are given extensive training, including how to work with students with attention disorders and those who are English-language learners. (Volunteer training begins this fall at schools across the county; get the details at unitedwaywinecountry.org.)

Pasitos, a program of the Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, is exclusively focused on English-language learners, 88 percent of whom are not proficient in reading by third grade. The program is aimed at families with 3- or 4-year-olds who aren’t able to attend preschool. The mission is twofold: first, to ensure these students aren’t starting kindergarten behind their peers and, second, to help parents become active participants in their children’s educational future.

“We’re really working to close the achievement gap for Latino students,” said Marta Flax Tillings, who manages the program. “It’s as much for the parents. Parents really want to know what to do, they came to this country for a better life and they want to see their child succeed.”

Hosted once a week for 1.5 hours throughout the school year, Pasitos focuses on early education basics such as the alphabet, counting and fine motor skills, such as how to hold a pencil. There is also plenty of fun, with stories, sing-alongs and educational games to keep kids motivated. Parents are encouraged to actively engage their children both in the classroom and at home, to make learning a family affair.

“We give the parents the tools they need to be their child’s first teacher,” Tilling said. “It’s a lot about empowerment.”

While the program does not currently exist in Sonoma Valley, Tilling is hoping to bring it to even more schools in Sonoma County with the auction funds. Tilling said she identifies the schools with the highest percentage of English language learners when selecting where to bring Pasitos, which currently includes 250 families at 17 different schools. (Find out more at capsonoma.org.)

With organizations that support literacy at school, during the summer months and at home, Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Louann Carlomagno is eager to see these programs help students flourish with an influx of funding from the Harvest Wine Auction.

“For us, one of our largest goals is to have students reading on level by the end of third grade,” she said. “The vintners and growers are helping us make that happen.”