With the holidays fast approaching, many Americans are in search of the latest and greatest children's gifts to place under the tree. But amidst all the dolls, gadgets and superheroes, there's one gift that, more than any other, can make a profound difference in the life of a child - the gift of reading.The holiday season is the perfect time to begin reading regularly with a child you care about. Those few minutes every day will help awaken a young mind -- and will make a real difference in that child's life, and the future of our nation. It's important to start early. Research shows that reading during the K-3 years is critical because it is the time when most children make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. In other words, this is when children learn the most important skill that helps prepare them for success later in school and life. Children who read at grade level when they enter fourth grade are more likely to graduate from high school than those who fall behind. Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- an organization serving America's most vulnerable families and children -- puts it succinctly: "Poor reading-test scores are profoundly disappointing to all of us who see school success and high-school graduation as beacons in the battle against intergenerational poverty." In America today, the challenge is enormous. According to the latest U.S. Department of Education data, one in four American children does not graduate from high school on time, if ever. For minority students, the picture is especially grim. While the 81 percent of white children who graduate high school is far from ideal, only 64 percent of American Indian students finish their studies. And almost 40 percent of Hispanic and African American students never receive a diploma. If that's not disturbing enough, consider that these kids will be entering a workforce in which 75 percent of job openings will require some post-secondary education. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, founding chairman of America's Promise Alliance, a group dedicated to educational excellence among U.S. youth, provides a strong case for action. "When more than a million students a year fail to graduate with their class, it's more than a problem; it's a catastrophe," Powell said. "Our economy and national security are at risk when we fail to educate the leaders and the workforce of the future." Like Secretary Powell, we at Target Corporation believe that giving America's students a good education, and especially a strong foundation of reading skills, is essential to our country's long-term success. We are committed to helping more U.S. children read proficiently by the end of third grade. In fact, since 1946 we have given 5 percent of our income to support local communities. Today that giving places a special focus on education and equals more than $3 million per week. We recently announced plans to donate more than $500 million to education by the end of 2015, which will more than double our investment in education to date. From donating books and sponsoring school field trips through the Target Field Trip Grants program, to Take Charge of Education, a program in which Target donates money to schools chosen by our guests, to the Target School Library Makeover program, through which Target volunteers transform school libraries across the country, Target is committed to doing our part. But we know that solving the education crisis in America will take all of us - companies, nonprofit organizations, government and engaged citizens - working together. As a minority woman, and the first member of my family to graduate from college, I know first-hand the importance of a good education. I am both humbled and inspired every time I sit down to read with a child or participate in one of Target's education activities. So spread the joy. Be that parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle who reads with the child in your life, or become the caring adult who volunteers to read regularly with a child in your neighborhood. Reading to children triggers a lifelong love of learning and reading - and it puts smiles on young faces. Let's all do our part to put our kids on the path to graduation, so they can lead our country to a brighter future. Laysha Ward is president of community relations for Target Corporation in Minneapolis. For details on Target's commitment to education and the company's focus on helping more U.S. students read proficiently by the end of third grade, visit Target.com/hereforgood.
********** Published: December 16, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 35