Driving down Interstate 95 into Johnston County, North Carolina, you can see change everywhere. Much is still rural, home to the largest number of farms in NC, and proudly the nation’s top sweet potato-producing county. Cotton and soybeans grow as a suburban landscape is developing. In the past ten years, there has been a 24 percent increase in the county’s population which currently stands at more than 209,000.
As the demographics of the county change, child poverty is more apparent and the commitment to address the root causes is growing. Communities are asking how can an increasingly prosperous community have 21 percent of its children from birth to age eight living in poverty?
That’s the impetus for a new collaborative in Johnston County called Read to Grow—to support more children having a strong foundation for academic success to grow into engaged and productive members of their community. The Read to Grow collaborative is led by the Partnership for Children of Johnston County (PCJC). With the strength of community partners, parents and caregivers receive supports; are empowered to discuss their family needs and help other parents do the same; and become advocates for children and families in their community. In working with parents, the Read to Grow philosophy is “nothing about me without me.”
Family and child well-being data drives Read to Grow’s strategy with a focus on mapping poverty rates and race, overlaying it with kindergarten preparedness, end-of-grade test scores and absenteeism. There are about 23,750 children in the county, ages birth to eight years old. Only 36 percent of children entering kindergarten are meeting literacy benchmarks (DIBELS); 58 percent of third-graders are reading on grade-level and 11 percent are chronically absent.
Disaggregating the data shows the disparities by race, especially in end-of-third grade testing:
- 33 percent of Black students are reading on grade level
- 36 percent of Hispanic students are reading on grade level
- 52 percent of multi-racial students are reading on grade level
- 64 percent of white students are reading on grade level
Overlaying this data on the 23 elementary schools in the county further highlighted that schools in rural communities are scoring significantly lower than those in more suburban schools. This data provided Read to Grow its roadmap – literally – guiding it to schools in parts of the county where the highest disparities exist.
Read to Grow’s 2026 goal is for reading proficiency to increase by 10 percent based on North Carolina’s measure of grade-level reading in third grade. That means building a community that is all in for success. With an understanding that parents and community must work together, the library and school systems, housing authorities, law enforcement, business and faith leaders, parents and child care providers, and early learning and health professionals are partners in the collaborative.
Chris Key is a financial advisor and managing partner at Acera Wealth Management and a member of the Read to Grow Steering Committee. He is a past chair of the local chamber of commerce and has two adopted and two biological children.
When Chris shared his excitement about Read to Grow, he discussed the value of an all-in community to champion the importance of literacy. “We need to shift attitudes about why reading proficiency is central to both the academic success of our students and to the economic success of our community. People have to receive a message between eight and 12 times to really hear it.” As the collaborative works to deliver the same message across the county, Chris wants to engage more business support such as grocery stores and other locations where families frequent.
Read to Grow recognized the necessity to face race and equity to realize its goals. With Johnston County more than three-fourths white, they need to be invested for success. The Steering Committee discusses race issues on a regular basis, offers opportunities for racial equity training, are accountable to each other, and routinely takes time to get out into the community to talk with parents and local leaders.
Read to Grow is already seeing success—parents are being heard, speaking directly to the challenges they face every day and are invited to serve on action teams. The collaborative will offer stipends, transportation assistance and child care to parents attending meetings. “I get paid to do this important work, they should too,” said Karen Mills, Operations Director at PCJC.
Dr. Monique Boyd, an African American chemistry teacher at the NC School of Science and Math, who serves on the Read to Grow Steering Committee as a parent representative notes that “equity remains a real challenge in our community. From high-quality preschool to extracurricular activities, resources are scarce in the eastern part of our county where poverty and underperforming schools are more prevalent.”
Through the classes she took on active reading when her children were young, she became a volunteer for PCJC. “We want children to come to school with all their strengths. That means getting a strong start on an even playing field—more books, more resources to schools with a higher population of low-income students and students of color. And more supports for families in our county.”
We welcome Read to Grow to the NC Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Along with 12 other countywide collaboratives, we have a vision where diverse and inclusive communities grow thriving readers, beginning at birth and continuing through third grade, so each child is prepared for success.
The NC Early Childhood Foundation is the state lead for the NC Campaign, working to build the capacity of communities to form strong and long-lasting collaborations to achieve measurable outcomes.