• Count on Program to Continue its Good Work

  • Can you read this? If your answer is yes, you are one of the 50 percent of American adults who can read past an eighth-grade level. According to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute for Literacy, more than 32 million American adults cannot read.

    Why should the business community care about this? Reading is both a necessary life skill and the most basic workforce competency. The most dedicated individual and contributor to the company’s bottom line may never walk through an employer’s door — because they cannot read well enough to fill out the application.

    We tend to wait until students approach the end of their K-12 academic career before we ask, “are they career ready?” By then, it is too late. If Champaign County employers want to grow their workforce, preparation must start earlier than high school. United Way of Champaign County has a long history of investing in birth-to-five and kindergarten readiness. Why? Because studies tell us that if we can capture this demographic and provide these children with a solid social-emotional base, it sets them up for a life of learning.

    We will stop talking about the pandemic at some point (fingers crossed). Still, for the moment, it’s not over, and it feels like everywhere we turn, there are pandemic consequences to address. One of them is “unfinished learning,” or, an interrupted education that doesn’t allow students to master the skills necessary for moving to the next level.

    In July 2021, McKinsey & Company issued The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning. The report focuses on one of the most significant academic challenges our country has ever faced — namely, learning loss intensified by remote learning, Zoom fatigue and greater absenteeism. The pandemic also cast a massive spotlight on the inequities of education. The McKinsey analysis shows that nationally, average K-12 students were five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of last school year. Historically disadvantaged students were the hardest hit. Students nationwide in majority-Black schools were six months behind, and low-income students were seven months behind.

    The report also lays out the economic ramifications of Count on program to continue its good work doing nothing as a country and a community. McKinsey estimates that these students will earn upwards of $61,000 less over their lifetimes. The impact on the U.S. economy could be $188 billion when this group of students enters the workforce.

    In 2019, the Chamber, United Way of Champaign County, the CU Schools Foundation, Stephens Family YMCA, Parkland College, Champaign Unit 4 Schools, Urbana Unit 116, the Champaign Community Coalition, and WILL-TV launched a community initiative called iRead • iCount. The program had 150-plus volunteers in the classroom (each volunteering 10 total hours over 10 weeks), helping kindergartners and first-grade students master ageappropriate math and literacy skills. There wasn’t anything earth-shattering about the methodology or curriculum that was developed and implemented. The magic happened when we partnered caring, trained adults with the students in greatest need. The extra 10 or 15 minutes a volunteer spent with one of our littlest citizens made a difference. We know this because the program measures success. But then, COVID put a temporary end to iRead • iCount.

    Fast-forward to the present, and schools are back to in-person learning. People are vaccinating and, finally, children are clear to receive the vaccine. But we still have unfinished education. As we approach the end of the first entire in-person semester, teachers have had the opportunity to assess their students. We need to get the volunteers back into the classroom because our students need the help. And we cannot afford to wait any longer. Letting our children struggle now is a failure for all of us in the future.

    Starting in February, we will relaunch iRead • iCount. The program will run through early May, training is provided, and we are recruiting volunteers now. Most importantly, and we cannot stress this enough, donating just one hour a week means you can change a child’s life trajectory. Go to www. champaigncounty.org/iread-icount and sign up today to be part of the solution.