Toddler Merrilee Brewer, hair tousled from sleep, still has her footie pajamas on when she begins her morning ritual of gathering four or five favorite books. With her pudgy hands grasping tightly to the pages of "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault and "Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats, she cuddles with her books and her mother, Maura, as they read.

Maura Brewer has been collecting children's books since before Merrilee was born. It was the first step of many that may have moved her daughters away from a collision course with life - dropping out of high school, teen pregnancy, drug abuse and other societal ills. Merrilee, 21 months, and Alice, 6 months, have been read to by their mother since they were born.

"Merrilee prefers books over toys. She'll bring them to me and her dad all day long. I can tell she is learning words," Brewer said. Merrilee's day ends as it began, with bedtime stories and more conversations with Mom and Dad.

• • •

• READING TO YOUR CHILD has never been more critical than it is now. It plays a key role, especially before third grade, in keeping that child in school, out of jail and off welfare.

It is so important, in fact, that if your next-door neighbor is a single mother who works two jobs and doesn't have time to read with her children, you should go over and read to them for her. It will pay huge dividends in the future - not just for those children but for society as a whole.

That is the finding of a growing body of research that can no longer be ignored. Statistically, at least, you can make accurate predictions of a person's whole life by third grade based on reading ability.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children, has released a study indicating that children who are not engaged in reading and conversation with parents from birth to age 5 typically will enter kindergarten below level. Various predictors show those students who don't reach reading level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, which in turn can lead to other social ills, including homelessness, teen pregnancy, drug use and prison.

Children in poverty are six times more likely to drop out.

A new public opinion survey conducted by the United Way of Utah County shows disconcerting numbers for the valley often referred to as "happy." This is a place with a high volume of college-educated parents, two universities and many charter schools, private schools and libraries with daily laptime reading for children, yet the number of children who are not reading at grade level when they hit third grade is dropping across all three local school districts - Alpine, Provo and Nebo.

The U.S. government has poured millions of dollars into reading programs at schools but with little effect, given that most children learn to enjoy reading after being read to at home. As more and more parents are working longer hours outside the home, fewer children are getting the one-on-one time they need to learn to read.

And that's the educated parents. The prospect is grimmer for children whose parents are themselves illiterate.

Lack of reading affects more than just those children who are never going to feel comfortable in class. Most will work lower-paying jobs and are more likely to need Medicaid, food stamps or other government aid - paid for by taxes. They are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system and to be incarcerated - paid for by taxes. They are less likely to contribute meaningfully to society.

In short, the compounding of life's problems for poor readers and its inevitable drain on society has now risen to the level of a national emergency.

Bill Hulterstrom, president and CEO of the United Way of Utah County, knows all this. He saw the figures growing and understood what they would mean if the trend were not reversed. The good news, Hulterstrom says, is that it can be reversed. The challenge is that it will take thousands of people - 10,000 volunteers is his best guess - who are willing to read to their neighbors' children. That volunteer force is the focus of a new United Way initiative to increase reading proficiency among young children.

"If we want to reduce poverty in our community, if we want to increase the quality of life of our community for everyone, we need to focus on getting children ready for school," Hulterstrom said.

Roots

A United Way survey asked 4,000 Utah County residents if helping children succeed in school is worth almost any cost. The result: 55 percent disagreed, 23 percent didn't have an opinion either way. Only 23 percent agreed.

That lack of a sense of urgency is manifesting itself in homes and schools alike.

Family psychologist A. Lynn Scoresby said parents disengage from their children for a number of reasons. It's not lack of interest in the child's education, but the effect is the same as if they really didn't care.

"The first is the idea that family life is filled with distraction, and second, there's a large number of families whose actual structure has changed by divorce, work issues or unwanted pregnancy," Scoresby said. "There is an increased partitioning among people."

While you would expect highly educated parents such as those in Utah County to be closely involved with their children's education, that's not the case, broadly speaking. Scoresby said even some college graduates are not engaged with helping their own young children. They are busy carrying adult habits of performance-based recognition - acquired during their own educations - to the workforce, where job performance is more critical to them than their children's abilities.

Utah County folks have to change this mindset, Hulterstrom said. In the survey residents were asked on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most important, how they would rank their priorities. Jobs and the economy scored 4.68; personal debt was 3.22; helping kids succeed in school was 3.39.

"They are constantly worried about their performance and don't have time for family. Typically they leave it to the school and day care," Scoresby said.

Many people don't think a child's success in school is important to the rest of the community. When a student doesn't do well in school, only 42.8 percent of Utah County residents surveyed agree that everyone suffers the consequences. When a Utah County child drops out of high school, 39.3 percent of his neighbors feel there is no effect on anybody else.

The U.S. Department of Justice begs to differ.

More than 70 percent of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure," the department noted in a recent statement.

Even parents who are reading to their children are not doing so as much they should. United Way's study shows that only 43 percent of Utah County parents have a consistent reading time with their preschool-age children.

Even more shocking is that 53 percent of parents read less than once per week with their children. That one-on-one time with a parent could be life-changing for a child, for the better. Disengagement doesn't improve a child's life prospects.

• • •

• UNITED WAY OF UTAH COUNTY, in conjunction with Alpine, Nebo and Provo School districts and other organizations, is calling on the local community to improve reading proficiency in children.

United Way has announced a three-year program to do just that, called EveryDay Learners: Advancing the Common Good. Its central focus is to garner 10,000 new community volunteers and advocates to help children, particularly from birth to 5 years old, learn to love reading and be read to.

The initiative is following two tracks. The first is to increase mentor volunteers for the various organizations throughout the valley that focus on children, families and educational needs. The second and more important track is to have advocates throughout the county. These are locals who take it upon themselves to help children in their neighborhoods have reading experiences. They are being encouraged to start homework clubs, children's book clubs and just be neighbors helping neighbors read to their children.

United Way's Hulterstrom noted that just last year in Utah County, three out of 10 third-graders, or 2,500 students, were not reading at grade level. That isn't good.

"When we saw that approximately 2,500 of our children are not proficient at reading at grade level, we knew something had to be done," Hulterstrom said.

John Lewis, vice president at Brigham Young University, will lead the initiative. Lewis believes the spirit of volunteerism that is already in the community will have people willing to sacrifice some time to this cause.

"I feel the energy that exists in our community," Lewis said. "There are some worrisome trends, but we're at a point if we become aware and tap into our resources we can improve. We want a community filled with EveryDay Learners."

Simply put, parents need to re-engage with their children, starting at birth, Hulterstrom said.

The reading difference

Mari Tsosie knows what can happen when a child falls below grade level, and also what can happen when parents become engaged with their children.

Tsosie lived in Dallas and read to her children when they were small. While her son Naataanii was considered an accelerated learner in kindergarten and first grade in Texas, that's not the way it was in Utah. When the family moved here, Naataanii was pulled out for being behind and not able to work at a second-grade level.

"I started doing home school in the summer so he wouldn't get behind," Mari Tsosie said. "By fifth grade he got pulled out of his class because he was way ahead. I also continued with summer school. By seventh grade he tested at college level."

With approval of the Alpine district, Naataanii skipped two grades. Now, at age 15, he is preparing to graduate from high school in December and will start at Brigham Young University in January. In April he will receive an associate's degree from Utah Valley University. He's not a genius. He simply grasped the love of learning.

"Reading was an everyday thing, like a goodnight story or scripture reading," Naataanii said. "When I started, I couldn't read books or write papers. I came home and started reading drills with my mother. Now I read for joy. I read my best when I read for fun. I just do it. It's like breathing: you just have to do it."

"You have to be engaged with your kids. At the beginning be really, really engaged," Mari added. "The investment is up front."

Scoresby, the family psychologist, would agree with her. It is in the home, with parents, where people get their greatest opportunity for a good start. Not all children whose parents read to them end up skipping grades and graduating from high school early, but all children benefit.

• • •

• EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Jemima and her brothers Samuel and Yacir live with their mother in Provo. Their father is in Mexico. Most days after school lets out, the Franklin Elementary School students go to the South Franklin Community Center at The Boulders Apartments and meet with tutors. There they get homework and reading help.

According to Tom Steele, supervisor of the tutor mentoring program at the center, Jemima hated coming at first.

"She was difficult to work with and avoided doing her homework at all cost," Steele said. Steele added he had a talk with her about the importance doing her homework and why it's important to be honest that the homework is getting done. Since then she has continuously warmed up to the idea. Now, Steele believes she is totally engaged in the desire to learn.

When Jemima started, her spelling tests were averaging about 60 percent. Now she's hitting 100 percent every week. She consistently reads 20 minutes a day and is moving up in her class, according to Steele.

Her brother has seen similar results.

"Yacir could hardly write his letters in the alphabet. It would take him one-and-a-half hours to finish a half-page of questions," Steele said.

Since he started coming to the community center, Yacir has learned to focus, along with doing his schoolwork. "He has 12 times the capacity than before to want to learn," Steele said.

Shauna Brown, executive director of Project Read, said a parent is a child's first teacher, and the influence is paramount in life. "At a minimum, a parent should take an interest in what their children are doing in school. This tells the child that education is important and someone cares," she told the Daily Herald in an email.

She says there are several reasons that it's critical for parents to read to and with their children. It's a bonding experience; it helps develop pre-reading skills, including giving experience with books, hearing good fluency and intonation; and as children start reading themselves, parents can maintain that reading connection and support them.

Joy O'Banion, executive director of the Family Support and Treatment Center, knows first-hand the importance of childhood reading and learning.

"It's important to me that kids are prepared to succeed in school because I struggled. Young children are excited to learn, and although I was eager to learn, I didn't have the opportunity to attend kindergarten," O'Banion said in an email. "I didn't enjoy stability of education during my elementary years, nor did I grow up at a time when parental involvement in education was a priority."

From her experiences at the Family Support and Treatment Center, O'Banion sees children in a variety of family situations, almost always under great stress.

"Children with limited exposure to appropriate limits, behavioral consequences, following directions, and the other social skills are already in a ‘catch-up' mode as they begin kindergarten," O'Banion said. "It is more difficult for them to learn basic academics but also puts them at risk of being socially awkward in a system where social awareness is critical to success with peers."

Family therapist Scoresby agrees with O'Banion.

"The environment where learning takes place is more important than we thought," he said. Unfortunately, he said, "we don't have a lot of families organized or structured for achievement."

Scoresby has been holding workshops on "Achievement Synchrony" which reexamines the relationship between teachers and parents. His study reports that "rather than looking only for ‘inside the school' solutions, we can give new consideration to the important relationship between home and school. This is because children spend the majority of their time in these two environments and this is where most personality development takes place."

Scoresby's evidence suggests that the right type of parental involvement can produce improved parent-teacher cooperation and promote the personality qualities of achievement.

For more information visit www.AchievementSynchrony.com.

Where from here?

You wouldn't wait until your little boy could sing along before singing him a lullaby. You wouldn't wait for your young daughter to understand words before talking to her. So why wait until a child can follow books to start reading?

"Reading teaches emotional and social skills and creates good emotional health," Scoresby said.

For Lewis it's all about finding moments to teach. "One of the things I learned from my mother was to constantly be on the lookout for teaching moments with our children," he said. "The most effective, lasting lessons are learned in a moment when it's most applicable and therefore, most understandable. ... The formal settings are great, but the informal, spur-of-the-moment times often provide the most enduring teaching."

Brown of Project Read agreed.

"I don't like to set a specific teaching time," she said. "We teach all day long as opportunities arise. That said, every morning at breakfast we read scriptures together, and every afternoon we sit together and work on homework together. Every evening at dinner we discuss the day, things they learned, things they've done for others. And every evening before bed I read to them and sing songs. We also attend music classes together and spend time playing together, which always leads to teaching opportunities - the key is to spend time with your children and the teaching will come."

Outside of the home, there are dozens of ways to help children learn.

Hulterstrom said there are many things that people can do so solve the looming problem before it fully blooms.

"I know of a woman who organized a homework club for teenagers in her neighborhood, another who volunteered her services as a tutor in her neighborhood. Virtually every neighborhood and every school can use readers, tutors and mentors," he said.

The EveryDay Learners program has laid out a standard: To become a true EveryDay Learner, step up your efforts in your own life, in your own family, and in your own neighborhood. Volunteer in schools or nonprofit organizations.

[Find more about the initiative online at unitedwayuc.org/everyday-learners]

If you can't do any of that, then become a reading advocate. Hulterstrom imagines neighborhoods starting homework clubs, getting to know the children of the neighborhood and talking with them; organizing library and museum trips, conducting nature walks, doing crafts with children and cooking where they can learn how to read a recipe and measure.

"Virtually every child can be strengthened as we engage with them in their learning," he said. "The simple act of asking what a child's favorite book is can encourage and inspire a child to continue learning."

And here's a huge factor - simple but effective, according to Hulterstrom: Learn the names of children in your neighborhood.

"The research is significant that knowing a child's name in itself will benefit that child," Hulterstrom said. "Be a positive influence in their lives. Offer your talents and time to the parents."

It's up to us, he said. We can either do small things now, or society will suffer the consequences later.

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