GATE CITY — Reading proficiently by the third grade has long been considered a predictor of a student’s future academic success.
Even so, only one in three students reads proficiently by that point. That’s one reason Ballad Health and seven local United Way organizations have committed $300,000 to third grade reading initiatives in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
The partnership, announced during a Wednesday morning press conference at Shoemaker Elementary School, aims to increase grade-level reading and improve reading proficiency for the region’s children, a cause Ballad Health committed to in its Certificate of Public Advantage to merge the Wellmont and Mountain States Heath Alliance systems.
United Way committed $100,000 of the $300,000 total, while the Ballad Health Foundation and Ballad Health employees committed $100,000 each.
“The passion around reading and making sure our children have the tools they need to be successful, it’s not new,” said Alan Levine, executive chairman, president and CEO of Ballad Health. “What is new is you have agencies from all over the region, for the first time I think, working together on a single purpose, which is to give our children the best possible chance for a strong start. So we’re proud to be a part of this.”
Working with schools
Levine said this isn’t the first time the hospital system has invested in local schools. Another of Ballad Health’s initiatives is the Morning Mile program, which encourages children to maintain active lifestyles.
“We have now gotten 85 schools signed up, more than 50,000 children are participating, and they’ve run or walked over a million miles,” Levine said. “I found out as I was coming up here (to Shoemaker Elementary) today that this school has not been a participant; it takes about $1,000 contribution per school … to participate in this, so I personally am donating the $1,000 so this school will become part of the Morning Mile program.”
Focus on reading
United Way organizations in Kingsport, Bristol, Elizabethton, Greene County, Hawkins County, Washington County and Southwest Virginia are already working to identify the needs of elementary schools throughout the region to determine how best to use the funds.
“What each United Way across the region is doing among the seven of us is piloting different projects,” said Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia. “Then we will collectively look at all the different pilots and see where we had the greatest success and what of those pilots can be replicated.”
Levine noted that this isn’t a one-time investment, but rather the beginning of a long-term partnership.
“The kids who are born today, by the time they’re 18, we want them to be college- or career-ready, and that starts now,” Levine said. “This is a big part of that initiative.”