In this on June 25, 2014, file photo, Tennessee's first lady, Crissy Haslam, speaks to children at the Avondale Recreation Center about the importance of reading.

Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam shared at the Camp House Monday night what the state is doing to increase young children's reading proficiency and encourage parent engagement.

Haslam's message came with a sense of urgency. Right now, she said, only one third, or 34 percent, of the state's third graders are reading proficiently.

"Third grade reading proficiency is a key marker," she said, adding that children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Two thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare, as 70 percent of inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level, she said.

Haslam said Tennessee is the only state to have the Imagination Library, a program that mails free books to children from birth until school age in all of its 95 counties.

In Hamilton County, 67 percent of the eligible children are enrolled in the program, she said, and residents have mailed more than 1.7 million books to the program for children.

Parent involvement being an important key to children's success also was stressed at the event. But Haslam acknowledged that some parents are simply unable to be as involved as needed, which is why she called for audience members to become mentors or take a few minutes to read to the children in their lives.

"One person can make all the difference in their lives," she said. "One person can be the difference in their success or lack of success."

In Hamilton County, reading proficiency levels were similar to the overall state's score. However, as it was pointed out at the event, proficiency levels drop into the teens when it comes to students who are English language learners or those who fall into other subgroups.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson said partnerships between the district and community organizations and businesses will help ensure that the public understands the importance of engaging students with reading at a young age.

He said the district is focusing its efforts to increase literacy within its Opportunity Zone to help the many children who attend those schools and are economically disadvantaged.

"If the state's goal, by 2025, is to be at 75 percent [reading proficiency], Hamilton County wants to be at 76 percent," Johnson said.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.