Already you can see the 4-year-olds in Jody Bohrer's class who will struggle in school. Maybe even drop out later in life. It's her job to see that they don't.

Her preschool program in Bloomington aims to close the achievement gap between her kids and those more fortunate before they even know it's there. She and a team of trained volunteers do so by stressing the basics -- steady practice in letters and words and the English language that many kids don't get at home. "It levels the playing field for these kids," she said.

Early literacy is emerging as the new front in the battle to narrow Minnesota's academic achievement gap between white and nonwhite students -- which persists as one of the largest gaps in the nation. From policymakers to schools and businesses, the urgency to ramp up reading has intensified as Minnesota schools grow increasingly diverse, particularly with more non-native English speakers.

This year, the state is rewarding schools that boost third-grade reading scores, businesses are pitching in more than ever to fund early literacy programs and aspiring teachers are receiving expanded training in reading. This week, Target will announce a $500,000 grant to nonprofit ServeMinnesota to replicate the Minnesota Reading Corps in D.C. and Denver, training volunteers in early literacy to help struggling kids.

"There is urgency ... we have a significant ... [percent of kindergartners] who are behind," said Barbara Yates, head of the new state Early Learning Council appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton. "When these students start behind, some of the them never catch up."

Like states from Iowa to Florida, Minnesota's literacy push is centered on ensuring reading well by third grade -- a critical year when children shift from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." In 2011, about one in five Minnesota third-graders failed to read at basic levels, or nearly 13,000 students. Emerging research on brain development, a stronger reliance on student test scores and the state's latest goal to narrow the achievement gap to half by 2018 are further driving efforts.

"In the last five years, the attention and focus has just accelerated exponentially," said Tom Holton, executive director of community education in Bloomington and Richfield schools. Literacy may not be the silver bullet, he said, but "it's certainly one of them, and it's at the top."

Lagging test scores

In Brenda Cassellius' office, the statewide literacy push is clear at first glance. Next to the state education commissioner's desk sits an oversized plush neon green frog she named Read-It. The $20 stuffed animal travels the state with her as she encourages elementary kids to read.

"In the highest level," she said, "this is getting the priority."

There's good reason.

A child who isn't proficient in reading by third grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school than a proficient reader, according to a 2011 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In Minnesota, just over half of Hispanic third-graders were proficient in the state reading test in 2011, while 58 percent of black third-graders read at basic levels. Sixty percent of their American Indian peers and 69 percent of Asian third-graders reached proficiency. All lag behind their white peers, 86 percent of whom can read at basic levels.

"It's kind of like missing your exit on the freeway; the further you go, the more you have to go back to catch up," said Karen Cadigan, director of the state's new Office of Early Learning.

Legislators have taken note. Starting this fall, schools have to report reading scores to their communities and have a specific literacy plan. They will receive $85 for each third-grader who passes the state reading test or shows growth in reading -- part of up to $48 million in literacy incentive aid. Legislators also dedicated $5.5 million more to the Minnesota Reading Corps, a nine-year-old AmeriCorps program whose literacy tutors work with struggling 3-year-olds through third-graders.

Sen. Gen Olson, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said the initiatives got wide, bipartisan support. "The logic is there," said Olson, who completed Reading Corps training herself.

Extra state aid will expand the Reading Corps from 780 to 1,100 retirees, college students and people such as Tony Meyer. The 27-year-old quit studying teaching in college to take time off. That turned into five years working at a local post office, where he saw the Reading Corps on TV. He signed on.

In Bohrer's Bloomington class, Meyer towers over the 18 4-year-olds, prodding each to name objects like a scissors or identify letters in their names. One boy didn't know how to hold a pencil on the first day, Meyer said. By day four, he could write his name.

"That's why you walk in the door every day," said Meyer, who will use a scholarship from his Reading Corps service to finish his teaching degree.

In 2009-10, seven out of 10 students at risk of failing the state reading test passed after a year with the Minnesota Reading Corps, the largest state AmeriCorps program in the nation. Other states have taken note. Austin, Texas, replicated the program this year; next year, it will start in schools in D.C. and Denver.

"This is where dollars invested are making a difference," Executive Director Kathy Saltzman said. "People keep saying, 'They're getting results in Minnesota.' We don't need other pilots; we have a program that works."

Other efforts are showing results, too. In Eden Prairie, all elementary schools started two-hour reading blocks last fall, adopting an initiative that Forest Hills Elementary has used for four years. From 2008 to 2011, the school's overall reading proficiency rate among third- and fourth-graders rose 7 percent, to 82 percent in 2011. Black third- and fourth-graders showed the biggest gains, with a 24 percent increase; 73 percent of students are now proficient.

"It really addresses the needs of all kids," coordinator Mike Savage said about the literacy blocks.

Business backing

The growing momentum is prompting state agencies, nonprofits, businesses and schools to collaborate more than ever.

Leaders of three state agencies are teaming up in the Children's Cabinet, a collaboration that helped the state score a competitive $45 million Race to the Top early education grant announced in December. Target, Cargill, General Mills and Medtronic combined last year to give $13 million to Minneapolis schools over three years, with Target's $6 million going toward reading initiatives.

Target also partnered with Minneapolis schools, the Reading Corps and the University of Minnesota Center for Reading Research to start a literacy program that has graduate students diagnosing and addressing reading gaps in elementary school students.

In Bloomington, a $150,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation will expand the preschool program, KinderPrep, which managed to get 90 percent of its students ready for kindergarten. Similar McKnight grants went to Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center schools.

Not to be left out, the Greater Twin Cities United Way also has backed expansion of Reading Corps in Bloomington, St. Paul and Minneapolis schools.

"In education, we're always looking for the next best thing," said Meghan Barp of United Way, which put $2.5 million for early literacy. "This is the next big piece in the puzzle."

Teaching the teachers

Changes for teachers are also part of the new literacy equation. State standards for teaching reading took effect in September 2010. Colleges now require prospective teachers to take more courses in how to teach reading to youngsters as well as a reading instruction test to get their license.

"These are the teachers on the front lines with our learners just starting to read," said Karen Balmer, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Teaching.

Teaching literacy is no longer as simple as handing a child a book, U of M literacy education Prof. Deborah Dillon added. Teachers must go beyond words and definitions to teach students complex ideas such as how an author designs a text.

While the growing emphasis on early literacy is critical, the movement also needs to extend to middle and high school, Dillon said. "It's absolutely critical we don't let up after third grade."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141