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
"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
"It's a shift from learning to read to reading to learn,"
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
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
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,
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
"Saying anything at all is better than not communicating,"
she says. "It shows concern and that gets the teacher's
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
"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
"It's important kids can say to themselves `I can do
this.' This is an important time for creating self-image," she
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
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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