Literacy's Magic Number Is 4; Mayor's Program Keys on Pre-Kindergartners, Hoping to Prevent Problems Later

Article excerpt

Byline: RACHEL DAVIS, The Times-Union

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton doesn't expect to erase illiteracy, just chip away at it.

He's asking the city's 4-year-olds to help in a plan that marks a departure from the more common literacy combat plan -- adults helping other adults read.

Although many cities have literacy programs for grown-ups, few have targeted youngsters.

Adult illiteracy is still a problem, but many programs already address the concern.

Pre-empting the problem is the way to fix it, city officials said.

By focusing reading resources on pre-kindergarten kids, Peyton hopes to alleviate ill-prepared adults down the road.

His much-talked about literacy program will produce kindergartners who are already familiar with books and reading, high school students with college and career goals and eventually an educated workforce with high-end job opportunities, Peyton said.

"If you can get to these children sooner . . . it will influence their entire life. It will influence their educational experience because literacy is the number one predictor for educational success," Peyton said.

The mayor's initiative, announced last month, will put trained reading instructors in nearly 200 day-care classrooms around the city, which will be reviewed and given ratings based on performance.

The mayor's office has been at it for a year -- adapting a program, bringing together stakeholders in education and formulating goals for the next year.

"Have we been fast or slow? I think you could probably get arguments on both sides of that," said Jim Van Vleck, literacy liaison to the mayor. "I feel like it's taken us probably about the right amount of time."

Van Vleck also points to a lack of other city literacy models for the seemingly slow start.

"There is not a community you can point to where you can say, 'boy they tackled literacy and they conquered it.' There's not an example," Peyton said. "Our goal is to build a program that may be a national model."

The plan, which expects to enroll at least three-quarters of the city's 13,000 4-year-olds, started long before Peyton's inauguration.

One of voters' top concerns during 2003 mayoral campaign was education, the one issue the mayor traditionally has no control over. So Peyton, looking for a campaign platform on education, teamed up with Cheryl Fountain, who already had an answer. …