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Byline: Lori Horvitz and Leslie Postal
Sep. 10--Rodney Francis Jr. was stumped.
The 9-year-old furrowed his brow as he tried to sound out the perplexing word. "Or . . . ork . . . cork. Cork!" he said, grinning as his index finger jabbed the page of Dr. Seuss' Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?
"He can go like a cork. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop," Rodney read.
As he plodded on through the book a second-grader should be able to read with ease, Rodney -- a fourth-grader -- got stuck on simple words, such as splat and plop.
Still, Rodney's mom, Charlotte Law, was thrilled. Just three months ago, Rodney couldn't read at all.
This enthusiastic but struggling child symbolizes a crisis in America: a staggering number of children who can't read by age 9 -- the critical turning point in a student's development.
Children must learn to read before they can read to learn. They must master Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? before they can tackle history, math and science textbooks.
"Read by Nine" has become a new mantra of the public-education system. But 37 percent of American 9-year-olds can't read well -- and some can't read at all. Results from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test show that nearly half of Central Florida fourth-graders are poor readers, and one in three can't read books written for second-graders.
Today the Orlando Sentinel begins a series of reports that will spotlight this enormous problem -- and search for solutions. During the next few months and years, the newspaper will examine the causes of illiteracy, and its high price for all Americans.
Future starts with reading
Some children are so far behind by fourth grade that they can't catch up. They face a dismal future of low test scores, bad grades and a reading problem that will dog them for the rest of their lives.
"This is where the high-school dropouts are created," said Seminole County Superintendent Paul Hagerty. "If you are not a capable reader entering fourth grade, the deficit becomes cumulative and pervasive."
As many as 15 percent of all U.S. high-school students drop out each year, and 75 percent of those children can't read well, according to a decades-long study by the National Institutes of Health. Many poor readers struggle through life quietly working dead-end, low-paying jobs -- an undereducated work force that stunts Central Florida's economic growth.
Aside from such personal tragedies, the price society pays is enormous. Many of these high-school dropouts eventually fill America's welfare rolls and prisons, costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year. And for those poor readers who stay in school, Florida community colleges spend $54 million a year teaching high-school graduates how to read.
School districts statewide face many obstacles in teaching children to read:
-- Poverty. Studies show that 60 percent of poor elementary-school children can't read well, compared with 26 percent of middle- and upper-class students. Many have limited vocabularies and rarely have heard a book read aloud.
The best gauge for poverty in schools is the number of children who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Statewide, 53 percent of elementary students qualify. The numbers in Central Florida mirror the state -- 54 percent of Orange County's schoolchildren; about half the students in Lake, Osceola and Volusia counties; and …