Dismayed by what it sees as failure of the public education system, a group of community members has rallied to form a new initiative to improve reading among underprivileged children, starting in the Hillside neighborhood.
The Martin Luther King Youth Success Movement, launched last week, stresses the importance of reading and providing tools for parents and organizations such as community centers and churches to take an integral role in helping children advance.
"We're going to build one of the best community collaboration models," said Gary Smith, a former college professor and technology consultant. A few years ago, he founded The Reading Success Movement, a nonprofit that helps communities start such programs.
"If a family wants to take responsibility for their child's success, we can help them," he said. "Our goal is 100 percent passing rate on English state tests."
The Nation's Report Card, a biennial look at how America's schools are doing, shows two out of three children nationwide are not performing at grade level by the fourth grade.
Not much has changed, Smith said, since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
"The same discussion we had 52 years ago about the achievement gap, we're having today," Smith said. "We really have made no dent."
Statewide, 40 percent of third-graders met or exceeded expectations in English language arts on Colorado assessments last year.
"And there is little awareness or concern from most people," Smith said.
At Colorado Springs District 11's John Adams Elementary, the neighborhood school for Hillside residents, Smith said 92 percent of third-graders "failed" the English portion of the tests last year by not meeting or exceeding expectations.
Smith calls the situation "a crisis."
His organization is working on the Martin Luther King Youth Success Movement with the Pikes Peak Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization that opened a local chapter in 2016.
The initiative uses Smith's reading program and community partners to help preschool through third-graders reach reading proficiency, with a target of declaring mastery at third grade.
"Third to fourth grade is really the milestone - it's got to be a rite of passage to move on, and today it's not," Smith said.
Students who miss the milestone are "behind forever," he believes, because the educational system isn't designed to continue teaching the basics of reading beyond that.
Smith doesn't blame schools or teachers; it's a "cultural problem," he said.
"I don't think we have that many bad teachers to generate this level of problem."
Issues begin when students are behind at the onset of kindergarten, Smith said. They have a hard time catching up because they don't receive the individual attention they need, he said, and there aren't enough preschool programs for poor kids.
That's where families and places like Hillside Community Center come into the picture, to not only help prepare youngsters for school but also immerse older students who haven't grasped basic reading skills.
Low-income parents receive a toolkit containing the online program for $25. It's free for those who can't afford it. If the family doesn't have an electronic device, they can qualify for a free Amazon Fire tablet.
The toolkit includes a component to identify why children are having trouble processing letters and words, such as cognitive problems or nutrition. The online lessons take 15 to 20 minutes a day, Smith said, and students work at their own pace.
Hillside resident Cheryl Grimes, a mother of five, said her 5-year-old son could barely write his name and was having trouble reading as a kindergartner.
"I couldn't figure out why he was struggling, but we figured out what areas he was weak in, and he became more confident," she said. "I knew it was working for him."
Her 4-year-old son also is participating and has become an advanced reader, she said.
"I'm really impressed, and I think if more people knew about this, they'd get their children involved. Having people who care is first and foremost."
Hillside Community Center has started providing the format to students after school.
The strategy is consistent and effective, said Nicholas Crutcher, who works with up to 70 students after school at Hillside and created his own organization, the Cornerstone Community Development Corp., an inner-city community outreach program.
"Everything we need to fix what we're dealing with is right here," Crutcher said.
The concept of immersing children in reading fundamentals until they get it is not new, the organizers point out. Soaring Eagles Elementary in Harrison School District 2 improved student academic performance enough to win numerous national and state awards by creating a similar method. That school's model uses numerous paraprofessionals in classrooms to work one-on-one with lagging students.
While just 8 percent of students at Adams meet or exceed expectations in English language arts last year, 59.2 percent of students at Soaring Eagles tested proficient.
The approach makes the difference, Smith said.
Adams Elementary Principal Nate Hansen, who has helped other struggling schools turn around, said he has met with several community members, legislators and business leaders, regarding their desires to partner with Adams on some reading-focused initiatives.
"This is a nationwide, systemic problem," said Chuck Irons, a former board member of Falcon School District 49, who's also involved with the initiative. "We don't say we're trying to do the school districts' job; we're trying to help them."