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How do you help more children learn to read and write?

You teach their parents.

That’s the conclusion of researchers at the universities of Michigan and California who studied data on more than 3,000 families for the National Institutes of Health.

“A mother’s reading skill is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors, such as neighborhood and family income,” the NIH reported.

The Literacy Network of Dane County will help more than 1,000 adults — nearly two-thirds of them women, most with children — improve their English language skills this year. Hundreds of volunteers tutor at the organization’s headquarters on Madison’s South Side as well as 27 other locations, including libraries, private businesses, hospitals and schools.

But demand is growing, and the Literacy Network’s 2,800-square-foot building on South Park Street is tight, with some night classes jammed with eager participants.

That’s why the Literacy Network is officially launching a $3 million fundraising campaign today to dramatically expand its space and services.

Please help if you can.

The nonprofit has quietly raised about $930,000 so far and purchased the former Wingra Clinic at the corner of Dane and Park streets. Now it is actively seeking additional funds from the general public to finish renovating the former clinic into classrooms, a library and child care area.

When construction is done, the Literacy Network will have four times as much space and the capacity to help 2,000 adult learners next year. That’s twice as many as now.

Jeff Burkhart, executive director of Literacy Network, is confident his more than 40-year-old organization can quickly achieve that ambitious goal with the renovation of the former clinic. An estimated 55,000 adults in Dane County lack literacy skills, he estimated, meaning they struggle to fill out applications, read prescriptions or help their children with homework.

It contributes to the achievement gap in area schools, where poor and minority students are much less likely to graduate than their peers.

Learning to read and write helps adults keep and land jobs. It also helps people who break the law stay out of trouble.

“What we’re doing is providing hope and confidence,” Burkhart said.

He’s right.

Some of the adult learners who have benefited from Literacy Network classes will tell their stories tonight at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Madison’s East Side.

This noble and smart effort deserves strong public support.

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