(WGHP) — In the United States, 54% of adults read below a sixth-grade level. Nearly one in five adults reads below a third-grade level according to the U.S. Department of Education. It’s a national problem that touches communities in the Piedmont Triad.

Illiteracy has been an ongoing problem in High Point for decades. When most adults worked in furniture or textiles, they didn’t have to be able to read to do their jobs well. But times have changed, and the High Point Community Foundation is working hand-in-hand with Guilford County Schools to help the next generation of workers change too.

“About two years ago, one of my chairmen challenged me to come up with an initiative that could change our city, the entire city,” said Paul Lessard. 

After several months of research, he realized students in Guilford County Schools needed extra help with literacy today to be ready for tomorrow, and as president of the High Point Community Foundation, he could help make it happen through the Students First initiative.

“Ultimately, what I realized was, if you take any of the social problems we have in High Point, and any economic problems, if you dig deep enough you will find that it’s education, and specifically literacy,” he said.

Lessard says public schools do a wonderful job, but too many students read below grade level, and schools are never given enough money to fight the problem. He says it’ll take the business sector, the private sector and the philanthropic sector coming together to underwrite programs that help the schools produce future workers with literacy skills to be successful in high-tech jobs.

Lessard said, “What we realized early on is it’s not an issue of not knowing how to do it, it was an issue of manpower and money.” 

Through the Students First initiative, the High Point Community Foundation is working with Guilford County Schools to help fund what’s called high-dosage tutoring. 

Jose Oliva, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools, said, “High-dosage tutoring happens with high frequency, so two to six hours per week, these are not tutors who tutor a group of students, this is either in a small setting, one-to-one or one-to-two, and the tutors are trained with our core curriculum.”

Federal funds paid for the tutoring during the COVID pandemic, but that money’s running out. Now the Students First initiative will start by funding high-dosage tutoring at four High Point Elementary Schools.

“We’re going to draw a line in the sand and say no kid in High Point is going to get past third grade without reading at grade level,” Lessard said. “If we can do that successfully, imagine what the ripple effect will be.”

More from FOX8

North Carolina News

See the latest North Carolina news

The plan is to eventually expand tutoring to all elementary schools in High Point. Lessard says the time and money invested in children today will create a stronger workforce in the years ahead and benefit everyone in High Point. 

“If you want to create a literate person, literacy equals self-sufficiency equals a healthy community. That’s the equation that we’re running with here. … When we talk about this being the right moral and ethical thing to do,” he said. “It’s also the right economic development thing to do. We can either pay now or pay a lot more later.”

Oliva says the COVID pandemic wiped out decades of progress in literacy, but high-dosage tutoring proved helpful in getting students back on track. The Students First initiative provided 300,000 tutoring sessions last year.