Educational success hinges upon myriad factors, but important ones include prekindergarten participation, the availability of high-quality early childhood education, the challenges and needs of the student population, and the adequacy of school funding. Prekindergarten helps prepare children both socially and academically for school, and can be especially important for low-income children who tend to be exposed to a less rich vocabulary and have access to fewer resources than their peers. In Berks County in 2016, 16% of 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in prekindergarten programs, up from 10% in 2007, though still below the state rate of 23%. Additionally, only 5.3% of the children under age 4 who needed child care had access to high-quality early childhood centers, under the statewide rate of 10%.
School spending in Berks County across public school districts was $16,500 per student in 2017, about 5% less than the statewide level of $17,400. The county level has increased 46% since 2000, less than the 47% increase the state saw as a whole. Per-student spending was the lowest in the Reading district at $12,500 and the highest in the Daniel Boone district at $25,500.
Pennsylvania defines students as historically underperforming if they are eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, English Language Learners, or receive special education services. The size and concentration of these groups of students can pose additional challenges to schools as they seek to education children who have fewer resources at home, require special or modified instruction as they gain English proficiency, or require intensive and often expensive special education services in order to support their educational outcomes. In Berks County, 51% of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch, 7% of students were English language learners, and 20% received special education services. Reading School District had the highest proportion of students eligible for free or reduced priced lunch (100%) and the highest share of English language learners (22%). Berks County as a whole also had a higher proportion of these student groups than its neighboring counties.
Measures of academic achievement show the majority of students in Berks County are considered proficient in the key subjects of English and Math by 11th grade, but up to a quarter to 30% are not. Disparities in academic achievement between historically underperforming students and students as a whole are consistent and remain significant. Additionally, Reading, with its high concentration of free and reduced price lunch students, consistently has some of the lowest academic outcomes for its students.
Third grade is an important milestone, particularly in the development of students' literacy skills. Through third grade, many students are learning to read; from third grade on, they need to be able to read to learn. In Berks County in 2018, 57% of 3rd graders (and 41% of historically underperforming 3rd graders) were considered proficient on the state's English Language Arts exams, a slight improvement from the previous year, returning Berks to 2016 proficiency levels.
Similarly, 8th grade math and English language arts proficiency serve as important high school readiness checkpoints. In total, 56% of students were proficient in English Language Arts, and only 29% of students reached proficiency in Grade 8 Math. Again, these rates were much lower for historically underperforming students (35% for English language arts and 11% for math).
Beginning with the class of 2017, Pennsylvania has designated 11th grade algebra and literature proficiency as a requirement for high school graduation. In 2018, 75% of 11th grade students reached proficiency in literature, and 67% achieved proficiency in algebra.
High school graduation rates in Berks County have been rising, with 85% of the 2017 high school cohort graduating on time, up 2 percentage points from 2011 and similar to the state graduation rate and increase over this time period. Some of the lowest 2017 graduation rates were in districts with high rates of students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a rough measure of low-income backgrounds. These included Reading, with a graduation rate of 67%. The highest graduation rates were in districts where between a quarter and one-third of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (for example, Wyomissing which had a graduation rate of 98%).
High school graduates’ post-graduation plans have been rising, with 66% of the 2017 high school graduates in Berks County planning on attending college at a 2- or 4- year institution, up slightly from 2008, and slightly higher than the current state rate (which declined by 5 percentage points over this time period). Several school districts had 75% or more of their graduates plan to attend a 2- or 4-year institution, these were: Wyomissing, Wilson, Schuylkill Valley and Fleetwood. Reading had the lowest rate, with only 51% of its graduates planning to go on to a 2- or 4- year institution. Berks’ rate ranked it in the middle of neighboring counties, whose college-bound rates ranged from 59% to 82%.
Berks County’s adult education levels are highest for Asian Americans (40% with a bachelor’s degree or higher) followed by whites (31%). African Americans and Hispanics in Berks had lower rates of higher education (16% and 9% respectively held a bachelor’s degree or above). These rates of higher education by race/ethnicity are generally below the state and national rates for almost every group. Additionally, the share of Berks County residents without a high school degree has declined since 2000 for all racial and ethnic groups.
Young adults provide a regional economy with a supply of young workers and their gain or loss can signal the vibrancy or stagnation of the economy. Berks County, like the state, has reversed the early 2000s losses in young adult population, and surpassed its 2000 young adult level in 2008-12. As of 2013-17, this population has increased 6%, an increase of about 2,840 people.
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