The Greater Twin Cities United Way said Wednesday that it will invest almost $6 million annually in education and health care access over the next three years, areas that the organization sees as gateways out of poverty for the Twin Cities' highest-risk communities.

The organization will invest $2.3 million annually in the St. Paul and Bloomington school districts to make sure students are reading at grade level by third grade, an important educational benchmark. It will also invest $3.5 million a year to increase health care access for an additional 25,000 people in the nine-county metro region.

Together, the programs will make up about 10 percent of the United Way's annual giving.

"It's very meaningful for us," said Frank Forsberg, United Way's senior vice president of community impact.

But more important, Forsberg said, the programs represent a major change in how United Way distributes money. Rather than work with many separate charities, he said, it's a chance to have a larger effect by helping large organizations with systemic changes that can address community-wide issues.

The St. Paul Public Schools are operating a pilot of the reading project in 11 elementary schools now, said Kathy Lentz, director of United Way Nurturing Children and Families.

Before the pilot project began, the district estimated that 44 percent of the third-grade students in involved schools were not reading at grade level. Although there has been no official measurement of progress thus far, "we're very pleased," Lentz said.

In St. Paul and Bloomington, the program will be implemented by the Minnesota Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program that provides tutors to schools to make sure students are reading at grade level. In St. Paul, the East Side Learning Center, which is a tutoring program for students in grades K-4 on St. Paul's East Side, will also chip in.

St. Paul's pilot program serves about 1,200 students this year. By the third year, the district hopes to have it expanded to 36 elementary schools, serving 3,700 kids.

"And we're going to do it until we close the achievement gap," Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said. "This effort really gets at the heart of improving a community for generations. You're actually making an attempt, by improving literacy, to break the cycle of poverty for so many families that come through our urban schools."

While the United Way has officially committed to three years of funding, "we intend to stay committed to the program after that," Forsberg said.

The health care initiative that United Way is investing in will support increased access to publicly funded health care programs and community-based clinics that help meet medical, dental and mental health needs. Beginning Oct. 1, the money will support 23 programs, nine of which are newly funded by United Way.

"It's a significant amount," said Barbara Dickie, executive director for St. Mary's Health Clinics, which helps low-income, uninsured metro residents get access to services.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460