Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey talks about Read 20 often, like a proud parent.
The program encourages adults to read with a child for 20 minutes a day. It has been a source of pride for Ramsey, a calling card that underscores an important component of job creation: an educated, trainable work force.
The program started in 2006, but its future is uncertain. The Hamilton County Commission will choose a new mayor to take over in January when Ramsey joins the administration of Gov.-elect Bill Haslam. The new mayor might have new ideas about which programs are the best use of taxpayer money.
"The premise is good," Ramsey said. "The process is good, and it's about getting kids started appreciating reading at an early age. I often say in speeches it's fun to read to a child. But then the real reward comes when they can read to you."
Shawn Kurrelmeier-Lee, the program's chief reading officer, said part of working for county government is that nothing is certain. She said the program is a private-public partnership, with the county covering the overhead and salaries. In 2010, the county budgeted about $277,000 for the program, and $188,000 of that went to salaries.
According to figures provided by the county, Kurrelmeier-Lee makes roughly $100,000 annually.
But with that money, Read 20 "definitely had an impact," she said.
"Since the program's inceptions in 2006, reading has increased from 89 percent to 92 percent using the old [Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program] evaluation method," Kurrelmeier-Lee said. "Another factor in evaluating the program's success has been the increase in the number of distributed books by Read 20, which exceeds over 160,000 books."
The Read 20 program has recruited more than 100 volunteers and cultivated hundreds of partnerships with agencies, schools and other programs.
The program has recognized more than 27,000 Hamilton County elementary school students who read on or above grade level.
Kurrelmeier-Lee said the goal is to have every third-grader in Hamilton County reading at or above grade level. She said children who are behind at that grade level are less likely to succeed.
Jim Scales, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, serves on the Read 20 board and says he "totally" supports the program.
But Scales and schools spokeswoman Danielle Clark said they know of no data showing the program itself has improved reading scores.
What the program has done is encourage students to read, Clark said.
"I know it's very positive," Clark said. "I don't know if they've measured it."
According to the Hamilton County Department of Education website, the 2009 report card showed a nearly 2 percentage point drop in reading scores for grades three through eight, from 92 percent proficient and advanced readers to 90.1 percent. The scores also dropped for Hispanic and disadvantaged students.
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For more information about Read 20, visit www.read20.org
Two candidates considered the leading contenders to replace Ramsey had differing views about Read 20's future.
Mike Carter, now the mayor's special assistant, said he would "absolutely" keep the program in place.
"We've got two choices," Carter said. "We can teach them to read and educate them or incarcerate them."
County Commissioner Jim Coppinger said that if elected, he would review all programs to see how effective they are. He said that, to the best of his knowledge, Read 20 has been effective.
"Any programs paid for by taxpayers need to be reviewed and, if they're not effective, we need to be open to the fact of revamping them or not having them," Coppinger said.