Amid the angst over whether the Portland Association of Teachers would go on strike Feb. 20, Portland Public Schools' central administration put a hold on one of its key priorities—getting struggling students to read.

"Early literacy is a top priority at PPS," said Superintendent Carole Smith in November, when she launched the district's Read Big, Read Together campaign. "Every student can read. All of us can help."

Smith's words sounded great. But since November, the adults have paid most of their attention to battling each other and delayed a major part of the campaign to have 100 percent of this year's first-graders reading proficiently by the end of third grade.  

Focused on the teacher contract, the district postponed a pilot project that would have put trained adults in up to seven low-income elementary schools to help 1,700 students learn to read. 

Struggling readers at those schools will have to wait until next fall to get the additional targeted supports. And if they are in third grade now, they won't get the pilot project's extra services at all. 

Advocates say the district's myopia hurts kids.

"We've seen PPS launch other initiatives with great intentions and not follow through," says Otto Schell, lobbyist for the Oregon PTA.  “This is one of those really basic pieces to help kids succeed that should never get any kind of second-class treatment.”

"This delay is another example of the district's inability to have 'fidelity of implementation,' as noted in the high-school audit last year," says John Hirsch, co-chairman of Portland 80%ers for Educational Excellence, which worked on the pilot program. "It means another year where kids are not getting needed extra supports to be successful readers."

Critics are frustrated that the district could not simultaneously negotiate a teacher contract and implement a literacy pilot. PPS central administration includes 36 employees in its human resources department, in-house and outside legal counsel, and a $15,000-a-month labor consultant—as well as dozens of instructional experts who have nothing to do with labor negotiations.

Yet district officials acknowledge the reading initiative stalled because of contract talks. 

Reading by third grade is a key indicator of students' success. A 2012 Annie E. Casey Foundation study found that students who aren't reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school.

"When we talk about third-grade reading, what we are really talking about is graduation rates down the road," says Jennifer Samuels, executive director of Reading Results, a Portland nonprofit participating in the initiative.

PPS's third-grade reading scores on state standardized tests have been poor. 

Last year, 25 percent of the district's third-graders failed the state reading assessment. More than half of the district's African-American third-graders and 49 percent of Latino third-graders failed the test in 2013. Improving those numbers is part of the district's state achievement compacts.

In fall 2013, Smith announced "a game-changing effort" to prioritize early literacy. Working with the Portland Trail Blazers and other nonprofit partners, the district's Read Big campaign offered students a reading superhero (Blazers center Robin Lopez), a party at Moda Center and Blazers tickets, and the district's first-ever book harvest, which collected more than 28,000 books  in less than a month.  

Reading Results and other groups were ready to start work by the first week of February. Reading Results planned to have employees spend 2,250 hours reading with 100 kids between February and May. Volunteers for Start Making a Reader Today, were going to read with struggling students at least once a week.  

But after months of preparation, Jon Isaacs, Smith's top aide and the district's point man for the initiative, told the groups in early January  the district was postponing the project.

With their energies on contract negotiations, Isaacs and other district administrators had not laid the groundwork with teachers and principals at the pilot schools.    

Isaacs says he was also concerned about starting the pilot program in the face of a potential teacher strike. "At the end of the day, it was the protracted bargaining that really led us to postpone this," he says. "There's no question the protracted negotiations cost us.” 

The pilot program's targeted interventions will start in the fall, Isaacs adds, and other parts of Read Big are on track for this spring. 

Meanwhile, the mountain of books the district collected sits in shuttered Marshall High School. Volunteers are racing to prepare them for distribution to students in the primary grades before the start of summer vacation in June. 

School Board member Tom Koehler says kids lost out because of the district's management. 

“Great organizations know how to multitask,” Koehler points out.  “We ought to strive for that as well. It’s disappointing that good programs have been stalled because of negotiations.”