More than half of all third-<NO1><NO>graders in Sonoma County are reading below the recommended level for their grade.

That startling statistic caught the eye<NO1><NO> of the wine industry, and has become the main focus of <NO1><NO>fundraising efforts for the upcoming Sonoma Wine Country Weekend.

"It's surprising," said Honore Comfort, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners, about the literacy rate. "And we also recognize that as you dig a little bit deeper, that's the rate all across Sonoma County, but there are pockets of Sonoma County where it's even higher."

Raising local literacy rates has become a central focus of the fundraising efforts<NO1><NO> <NO1><NO>of two <NO1><NO>local winery groups, the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Gro<NO1><NO>wers' Alliance. The two groups will host the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction, one of many events during their annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend over Labor Day weekend.

Proceeds from "Fund the Future," by far the largest of the 35 lots offered at the Sept. 1 auction, will be donated to three programs that help children with reading. The goal is to raise the third-grade literacy rate to 90 percent by 2018, Comfort said.

"We saw that there was an opportunity here to really select one cause, one focus, and make a big impact on the community," she said. "We also wanted to invest where there was momentum building, and some sort of tools in place to help address the problem."

<NO1><NO>Last year, the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction brought in a gross total of $750,000, a record amount, said Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance. Of that, $483,500 was distributed to 32 local charities, including about $264,000<NO1><NO> to the charities funded by that year's Fund the Future lot. <NO1><NO>Organizers hope to raise about $400,000 <NO1><NO>through the Fund the Future lot this year, she said.

"We'd like to break that record from last year," Cottingham said. "We are committed now, for three years, to make sure we can raise as much as we can to improve the third-grade literacy in Sonoma County."

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>The funds will be distributed to the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, which runs the Sonoma Valley Summer Reading Academy; Schools of Hope, run by United Way of the Wine Country, which trains volunteers to tutor at-risk students; and Pasitos Playgroups, a program by Community Action Partnership Sonoma County that helps Spanish-speaking parents and their 3- to 6-year-old children with preschool readiness.

"If that pre-school level is not there, they will not be literate, and they will not be ready for kindergarten," said Lannie Medina, chief development officer for Community Action Partnership. "They fall behind, and it gets worse and worse every year. In Nevada, they look at their third-grade literacy rates to determine the size of their prisons in 10 years."

Mike Kallhoff, president and CEO of United Way of the Wine Country, which administers Schools of Hope, pointed to a variety of reasons for the problem.

"A lot is driven by demographics, and a lot of it is driven by the financial cutbacks to the school, and the ability to give the students what they need," Kallhoff said.

"A lot of these students just need that one role model in their lives to show them that they care," Kallhoff added. "Whether at home or in the classroom, the students aren't getting that individual attention so that they have the desire to read."

Funding for education has diminished, meaning classroom teachers must do more with less, said Marta Tilling, senior program manager for school readiness programs at Community Action Partnership.

At the same time, expectations on children are higher. Instead of focusing on learning concepts and having fun, children are now expected to read by Christmas of their kindergarten year, Tilling said.

In addition, many local children of parents who aren't fluent in English are presented with a language barrier in school.

The Pasitos Playgroups program aims to intervene while children are very young by bringing parents and children together with teachers for one morning each week. Children practice letters, numbers and math with credentialed teachers in small groups. Meanwhile, parents learn from instructors about parenting skills, such as setting aside time to read with your child each day, "narrating the day" by talking to toddlers about their surroundings and asking open-ended questions to encourage children to develop their vocabularies.

"We work with parents and children in a bilingual environment to narrow the achievement gap," Medina said. "We have the first and foremost teacher in their lives, their parents, taking the lead in becoming fluent in both English and Spanish."

Additional funds from the auction could help Pasitos Playgroups expand into more schools.

"We appreciate any support we can get," Tilling said. "We're really grateful to have been chosen for this effort."

Schools of Hope, which currently serves about 500 children in 19 schools, hopes to reach 800 students in the upcoming school year, Kallhoff said. Volunteers meet with students for a half-hour twice a week and work on identifying letters, then sounding out words, and eventually reading and understanding paragraphs.

One of the biggest challenges the organization faces is being able to reach all of the students who need its help.

"Ideally, in the schools that need it, if we can have tutors in kindergarten through third grade, we can really start moving the needle," Kallhoff said. "We have to work together to make a difference. The half-hour in a classroom is great, but if the student isn't getting support at home, how does that change things?"

In the past, the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction raised funds for urgent community needs, like an X-ray machine for Sonoma Valley Hospital or a new truck for the food bank. This year, organizers chose to target their investment toward a long-term goal.

Winemaker Dan Goldfield, partner in Dutton-Goldfield Winery and president of the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation, called the third-grade literacy rates "mind-boggling."

(You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.)