It takes an involved community to get third-graders to read

Ralph Smith
Ralph Smith

Jill Warren Lucas

We’ve all heard that literacy is the key to ending poverty. But what if the achievement had a critical deadline – a sort of time bomb, but one whose deafening tick could be silenced if all students could read on grade level by the end of the third grade?

Defusing the perception that public schools are beyond repair – or that low-income parents don’t care about student outcomes – is the mission of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Developed in response to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2010 report Early Warning!, the campaign is a community-driven initiative to improve the percentage of students who meet the third-grade-reading milestone, which is viewed as a crucial predictor of high school graduation and career success. Currently, 68 percent of American’s children, and more than 80 percent of children from low-incomes families, fail to gain this essential skill.

For these students, “We can predict persistent poverty with a level of clarity that should appall us,” said Ralph Smith, who last week delivered a Foundation Impact Research Group (FIRG) seminar at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy in Durham.

Smith, Casey Foundation senior vice president and managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, had little trouble persuading a highly engaged group of philanthropists, education leaders and child advocates that intense community involvement is the key to turning the tide for America’s youth – and, in turn, strengthening America’s role in the global economy. The campaign has set an ambitious goal that, by 2020, a dozen states or more will increase by at least 100 percent the number of low-income children reading proficiently at the end of the third grade.

The campaign planned to launch in February 2011 with about two dozen sites that could demonstrate they had the capacity to adopt the program model, which promotes community engagement to identify solutions to boost a child’s readiness for school, improve attendance and provide enrichment opportunities during summer break. They were stunned to receive 180 applications and ultimately selected 124 diverse charter members covering 350 schools districts and more than eight million K-8 students.

Addressing local issues with appropriate local resources – leaders and partners vary significantly from site to site – has been a key to the campaign’s early success, Smith said. “What we’re trying to do is craft a new world that allows a level of local decision making, local ownership. It’s a relationship that national foundations can never have,” he said. “Maybe that’s the charge of national philanthropy: to create pathways so local communities can get there themselves.”

“If you let average citizens know that there are easy ways to get involved, they will come,” said Ginger Young, president of the Chapel Hill-based Book Harvest, which has provided more than 100,000 new and gently used books to low-income children in the past two years. “Books are an important tool for a healthy childhood, but a lot of children don’t have any. There is a role for every person in this community to address this problem.”

Smith emphasized that the campaign is not intended as yet another stand-alone “boutique” program that competes for shrinking resources. “We want it to attach to what’s existing, strengthen it and draw energy to improve it,” he said. “An important aspect of success is not blaming schools but rather enhancing partnerships that support schools. We are finding that it creates excitement in communities and gives them a way to look past current challenges to a brighter future.”

Barbara Goodmon, president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, noted similarities between the campaign model and the East Durham Children’s Initiative, which is building upon the natural goodwill communities have for supporting strong educational programs for their children. “We have good benchmarks on crime being down and test scores going up,” Goodmon said. “Sustaining a change model always is an issue, but right now we have excitement among the groups that are involved.”

Importantly, Goodmon added, the initiative has the support of Eric Becoats, superintendent of Durham Public Schools. “If not for him, it wouldn’t have happened,” she said, joining many in the room who urged Smith to add Durham to the 124 members of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. “We hope it’s a model we can take elsewhere in the state.”

Becoats agreed. “We can’t continue to say that the dollar will stop us from doing what we need to do. But we have to get more bang for the buck,” he said. “The momentum in this room tells me that we can get it done.”

“You get this done,” Smith said, handing him an application, “and you’ll be No. 125.”

Stan Litow, president of IBM Foundation and vice president of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs for IBM, will deliver the next FIRG seminar at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 28. For information, contact Mary Collins at 919-613-7432.

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.