When it came to making sure her kids mastered the Three R's by the end of third grade, Palatine mom Jennifer DeFranco faced two completely opposite objectives.
She had to prod teachers into giving her perfectionist daughter Madisyn more challenging assignments. Three years later, she pressed for tests to prove son Devin needed reading intervention.
"You know your child better than anyone else, so you are their best advocates," DeFranco says. "If I hadn't been in constant touch, if I hadn't kept asking over and over, they never would have gotten the attention they needed to be where they needed to be by the end of third grade."
Third grade can be a make-or-break benchmark.
What's so special about being "Great at 8," the age when kids usually finish third grade?
It's at the end of third grade, says Paula Corrigan-Halpern, policy advocacy director at Voices for Illinois Children, that life is about to get a lot more complicated.
"It's a shift from learning to read to reading to learn," she says.
Third grade is also when children first face that sheet of little ovals on standardized tests, an experience that can shape a kid's self-image for years to come.
"Where kids are in reading and math in third grade has a lot to say about where kids are in later years," Corrigan-Halpern says. "If they are far behind then-it's not that interventions don't work-but, by and large, they tend to stay far behind."
Studies show that third-graders who muster the skills of "grit, determination and resiliency" it takes to accomplish basic math and reading skills in third grade have a better chance to get ahead in school and life, she says. Those who don't get it before fourth grade are more likely to drop out of high school, to be victims or perpetrators of violence, to abuse drugs and alcohol and to work in low-wage jobs.
Far too few Illinois fourth-graders are ready to learn. Despite gains in the past few years, only 65 percent of Illinois fourth-graders were at or above basic reading level on the national Assessment of Educational Progress in 2009, and only 36 percent made the "proficient" mark.
What would Illinois parents buy if they had a million dollars to make their kids "Great at 8"?
Those are the answers Illinois parents told policy makers in a survey.
Parents know that stress from losing a home through foreclosure, dad yelling at mom, or fear of getting kicked out of the country all follow kids to the classroom. They are well aware that children stoked up on junk food, choked up by asthma, and throbbing with toothaches have high absence rates and low concentration.
Kids who spend their free time doing fun activities with pals and have grown-ups who care about them take better attitudes and better skill sets to school.
But it doesn't take a million bucks to put so many of those pluses to work for elementary school kids, says DeFranco, a self-described "education advocate" who has held a long list of positions on state and national PTA boards and writes a blog, advocatemomma.org.
All it really takes is the backbone to step up and tell teachers what your child needs to succeed.
DeFranco sends a letter of introduction the first day of school to fill the teacher in on how her child best learns, what are the strengths and weaknesses, what she hopes they will accomplish in that grade. Parents who are insecure about their own language skills should remember the writing doesn't have to "be anything fancy."
"Saying anything at all is better than not communicating," she says. "It shows concern and that gets the teacher's attention."
Throughout the year, parents should keep teachers up to speed on what is going on with kids after they get off the bus-if a family member is in the hospital, if there are marital problems, if mom can't find time to help with homework, if dad is struggling to put food in the lunch box or pencils and paper in the backpack.
"Most schools can put families in touch with programs to help with all these kinds of family problems," DeFranco says. "But they can't until they know the problem exists."
DeFranco asks for (and gets) her own copies of textbooks at home so Devin has a head start on reading assignments.
"It's important kids can say to themselves `I can do this.' This is an important time for creating self-image," she says.
It doesn't matter how busy a mom is or what her own level of learning is, DeFranco says. There's always time to say "Is your homework ready for tomorrow? Do you have the supplies you need? How's it going at school?"
"Regardless of what the home environment is, any parent can be their child's best advocate for making it through third grade, if they are just willing to use their voice," she says.
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.