Early Grade Level Success

Two preschool boys

Success in life begins with a quality education. And yet, many Champaign County children and youth enter school unprepared, lacking the support they need to strengthen their literacy and math skills and stay on track in school. Ultimately this leads to fewer students graduating high school and finding a career.

United Way of Champaign County is fighting to change the statistics. In order to build a community where every child can achieve their full potential, we must start with early education.

Kindergarten Readiness

Knowing all the letters in the alphabet. Recognizing numbers 1 to 20. The ability to actively listen to a book read aloud. Kindergarten readiness means many things.

Above all, kindergarten readiness means kids have the cognitive, social-emotional, and physical abilities and skills that prepare them to be in a formal school setting.

The problem is, not all kids come to school with the same level of skills. And when a student is too far behind, they may never catch up. 

Studies show that students who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, and from families living below the poverty line are often developmentally and academically behind their peers who are white, Asian, and from affluent families.* The gap is not inherent to a child’s cultural, socioeconomic, or geographical background but rather a result of years of economic, housing, cultural, and other policies that have disproportionately hurt people of color and who work low- and middle-skill jobs. These policies have created a gap in opportunities to learn for the children of these families.

Third Grade Reading and Math

Reading opens new worlds. With a book, kids can imagine new places, think about new ideas, and see themselves as anything they want to be. Reading is also the foundation for all learning. Learning math, science, technology, history – mastering all of these subjects requires kids to have strong reading skills.

That may be one of the reasons that research shows the single most significant factor influencing a child’s educational success is an introduction to books1. Even more important, studies demonstrate that reading proficiently by third grade leads to higher rates of graduating on time2, and earning a high school diploma helps kids avoid incarceration3, find a job that pays a sustainable wage4 and live a healthier life5

Yet too many children enter school without even the basic skills they need to learn to read. Across the US, one in four kids grows up not knowing how to read at a basic level6. The statistics are more grave for children who come from under-resourced neighborhoods. Three in five families who struggle to make ends meet have no books in their homes for their children7.

If we want all kids to be able to be successful in school and go on to pursue higher education or be qualified for a stable job, there must be a way for more kids to build their literacy skills. 


On average, one in ten kids in kindergarten and first grade are chronically absent8 – which means they miss so much school they get behind and can’t catch up.  Chronic absence can lead to problems with literacy, passing subjects, and even graduating high school on time. 

These students are future contributors to our local businesses and communities. When they miss too much school, they fail to build the knowledge and skills they need to actively participate in our economy and society. Without capable citizens, our region may struggle to adapt to changes and thrive in the future.

That’s why United Way of Champaign County teams up with local schools and districts as well as families to help every student have the greatest chance of going to school every day. We want to make all kids strong, so our community can be strong.


*National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts on Knowledge and Skills of Young Children

1National Commission on Reading

2Donald J. Hernandez, Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation; Center

3U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics

4U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

5Center for Disease Control and Prevention

6National Assessment of Educational Progress

7Reading Literacy in the United States: Findings from the IEA Reading Literacy Study


What the Data Tells Us

Kindergarten Readiness

The 2021 Illinois KIDS survey reports only 19% of Champaign Unit 4 kindergartners, 13% of Urbana 116 kindergartners, 30% of Rantoul City Schools 137 kindergartners, and 35% of Mahomet-Seymour kindergartners, demonstrate readiness in the three areas measured - Social/emotional development, language & literacy, and math.


Third Grade Reading Achievement

22.9% of Unit 4 and 7.9% of Urbana 116 third graders are meeting or exceeding learning standards in third grade English Language Arts - 6.9% and 1% for Black students, and 10.4% and 3.3% for low-income students. In Rantoul City Schools 137, 5.7% of third graders are meeting or exceeding learning standards in third grade English Language Arts – 9.8% for Black students.

Achievement Gap

U4 Grade 3 ELA Achievement Gap Low income students -28 compared to non-low income (state -27)

U4 Grade 3 ELA Achievement Gap Black students -35 compared to white peers (state -25)

U116 Grade 3 ELA Achievement Gap Low income students -19 compared to non-low income (state -27)

U116 Grade 3 ELA Achievement Gap Black students -16 compared to white peers (state -25)


Third Grade Math Achievement 

27.2% of Unit 4 and 11.1% of Urbana 116 third graders are meeting or exceeding Math learning standards - 10.1% and 1.5% for Black students, and 13.2% and 4.9% for low-income students. In Rantoul City Schools 137, 4% of third graders are meeting or exceeding learning standards in third grade Math- There are no Black students meeting or exceeding.

Achievement Gap

U4 Grade 3 Math Achievement Gap Low income students -32 compared to non-low income (state is -32)

U4 Grade 3 Math Achievement Gap Black students -39 compared to their white peers (state is -33)

U116 Grade 3 Math Achievement Gap Low income students -26 compared to non-low income (state is -32)

U116 Grade 3 Math Achievement Gap Black students -22 compared to white peers (state -33)


Chronic Absenteeism

Champaign Unit 4 - 38%

Urbana Unit 116 - 49%

Rantoul City Schools 137 - 34%


United Way's Early Grade Level Success Goals

  • Increase the number of students in Champaign County who demonstrate kindergarten readiness in at least one area by 10%
  • Increase the number of Black students who are meeting learning standards in Math and English Language Arts by 10%
  • Increase the number of low-income students who are meeting learning standards in Math and English Language Arts by 10%
  • Decrease chronic absenteeism by 10%

Investing Big in our Smallest Community Members

On July 1, 2021, United Way awarded $700,000 in two-year grants to local programs working to improve Early Grade Level Success across Champaign County. Each grant program is working towards the same three goals:

  • Increase the number of students demonstrating kindergarten readiness by 10%
  • Increase the number of low-income and Black students meeting Math and English Language Arts standards by 10%
  • Decrease chronic absenteeism by 10%

Our Strategy

Our strategy is comprehensive, starting before birth and supporting children and families through third grade. By working United, we can change the statistics. Our grants and collaborations will provide:

  • Home visits by nurses, social workers, and early educators to low-income mothers of children 0-5, providing support, resources, diapers, and age-appropriate educational toys and books
  • Installation of ten Born Learning Trails in area parks, providing free early education activities to all
  • Developmental screenings and early intervention programming for children experiencing special needs or with delays in development
  • Free Read. Talk. Play. Every Day! calendars for all 3, 4, and 5-year-olds, in English, Spanish and French
  • Summer programming to prepare both children and parents for kindergarten
  • Volunteer programs in our schools, providing kindergartners one-on-one help with reading and math
  • After-school and summertime academic support programs for K-3 students of diverse backgrounds, with a focus on reading, math, and science curriculum

Transformational, not Transactional

The work doesn’t stop with grants – because United Way is much more than a fundraiser. We’re bringing everyone to the table to build lasting solutions to ensure all children start school strong. We’re engaging employees as reading volunteers. We’re working with communities to share the importance of attending school every day. We’re providing books and support to our schools. And we’re following the data, putting an extra focus on supporting our Black and low-income students and families.

Special Projects in Early Grade Level Success

Born Learning Trails

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library

Read. Talk. Play. Every Day! Public Awareness Campaign

Read. Talk. Play. Every Day! Calendar

Grant Partnerships

Academic Support Program

Structured and consistent one-to-one and small group learning activities to help youth overcome the various obstacles they may be facing in the classroom, especially in reading and math.

A program of Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club


Community Study Center

Youth will receive year-round one-on-one homework and tutorial sessions in reading and math, along with small group grade-level assistance that will support their classroom academics. Also includes an 8-week summer program.

A program of Urbana Neighborhood Connections Center



Afterschool program for Rantoul students providing intentional and purposeful individualized instruction to make up for unfinished learning due to COVID, with focus on discovering the world and STEAM-based projects.

A program of Rantoul City Schools


Family Development

Supports and services to families of young children, birth to age five, who are experiencing or are at-risk for delays in development, or have identified special needs.

A program of Developmental Services Center


Healthy Beginnings

Long-term nurse home visiting service, providing home visits to low-income, expectant mothers and their families.

A program of Carle Health


Intensive Literacy Homework Assistance Program

Improves literacy and academic achievement for elementary students with academic and/or social/emotional challenges, primarily from Urbana Schools. Incudes direct instruction for students in literacy and math from licensed instructors.

A program of Urbana Neighborhood Connections Center



Grassroots community initiative utilizing a curriculum developed by Unit 4 specialists, using volunteers to work one-on-one with students to improve the reading and math scores of Kindergarteners.

A program of Champaign County Chamber of Commerce


Kindergarten Success Program

Provides Jumpstart Camp and Family Camp in summer months for students in Champaign and Rantoul preparing to enter kindergarten, as well as their families.

A program of DREAAM


Paving Pathways to Bright Futures

Provides developmental learning activities and ASQ/ASQ-SE screenings for children 0-6.

A program of Crisis Nursery



Provides developmental materials, home visitors, and supports for children and their families beginning at birth and all along the way until a child is ready to enter Kindergarten.

A program of CU Early and Champaign County Head Start


Summer Learning Support Program

Structured high-yield learning opportunities to prevent summer learning loss for youth grades K-3.

A program of Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club


Well Kids

Afterschool and summer learning program for youth, committed to increasing successful outcomes for Black families and dismantling racial disparities, helping enhance the academic growth, social-emotional needs, and mental wellness of People of Color living in the Urbana-Champaign community

A program of The Well Experience

All programs that are working in the defined area and meet the eligibility requirements were encouraged to apply.

This is a competitive application process. Not all applicants will be awarded a grant.

Grant awards will be announced publicly in July 2024.

Important Details 

Grant Application Opens:        March 1, 2024

Grant Application Closes:       April 1, 2024 at 11:59pm

Program Interviews:               April 8-19 2024

Notification of Award:             May 24, 2024

Grant Award Range:             $10,000 - $80,000 per program 

Eligibility Requirements

Grant activities must align with United Way of Champaign County's Early Grade Level Success Goals.

Grant recipients must measure at least one outcome statement and one indicator from UWCC's list of metrics.

The applying organization must meet United Way of Champaign County's grant eligibility requirements

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Information Sessions

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Year 2 Grant Report (July 1, 2022 - June 30, 2023)

Year 1 Grant Report (July 1, 2021 - June 30, 2022)

Download the report.