Sonoma County is known for its rolling hills, its Mediterranean climate and its internationally famous wines. And sure enough, an easygoing drive down Highway 12 reveals lush mountains of green, sprawling vineyards and billboards advertising chauffeured limo tours where passengers can sit back and have a cabernet sauvignon without worrying about the burden of driving.

Yet in a region where even taqueria menus have burrito-wine pairings, not everyone is wealthy, and many Wine Country children face a dire future where they won't have the skills to compete with their peers. Fewer than half (43 percent) of Sonoma County's third-grade children are proficient readers —as are fewer than a quarter of the county's English language learners.

If left unchecked, these trends threaten to do far more than make fourth grade more difficult. In fact, these children may struggle to catch up for the rest of their lives. As we say at Schools of Hope, "from kindergarten to third grade, children are learning to read; from fourth grade on, they read to learn." If Sonoma County's children aren't up to speed by fourth grade, they'll be four times less likely to graduate high school by 19 and statistically more likely to spend time in jail or prison.

That's why we at Schools of Hope — part of the of United Way of the Wine Country's efforts to improve education, income and health in Sonoma County — are committed to helping students read at 25 Sonoma County Schools. Now in our fifth year, we see our students learn 15 percent to 48 percent faster than similar, non-tutored students. We can lead Sonoma County into a more literate, more productive future.

Schools of Hope tutors meet with a child at least once a week, practicing reading, writing and comprehension. Teachers choose the material children will work with, reinforcing what students learn in the classroom and giving them additional support on top of the help they receive at home. By pairing every child with at least one tutor and providing our tutors with training and instructions, we've created a program anyone can join, provided they can spare 30 minutes a week — even if they're not a professional educator. In just a few years, local teachers and parents tell us, we've turned some of the county's most stubborn students into eager readers who come to class with the enthusiasm usually reserved for recess.

As we grow, we're reminded daily that we can't do it alone. In fact, we're reminded daily that we can't do it alone. In fact, without our tutors, there would be no Schools of Hope at all. To guarantee Sonoma County's children have the same opportunities as their peers means we need your help more than ever — and not just with tutoring.

The causes behind Sonoma County's low literacy rates are complicated, and we may never be able to identify all of them. But three times a year, we evaluate our students with DIBELS Next assessments, a research-backed measurement that allows us to determine which children face the greatest academic risks. It's a time-consuming, resource-heavy process that we just don't have the staff to take on alone. In these cases, we're dependent on trained volunteers to jump in with a few of our staff. And with each volunteer we get, the process multiplies in speed.

By teaching our children to be better readers and fostering a culture of reading early on, we can at least give them the skills to keep up with their schoolwork. And if we can start there – and teach them about the power of books — maybe can foster a community that's as known for its readers and writers as it is for its wines.

<i>Andrew Leonard is the education program officer at United Way of the Wine Country.</i>