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January 20, 2015

Bright Spot: Sarasota

Editor’s Note: The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading highlighted the work being done in Sarasota County in this Bright Spot. Bright Spots showcase the work that Grade-Level Reading communities are doing to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning. They are written and produced by the Campaign.

Year after year at Alta Vista Elementary in Sarasota, Florida, only about half of the third graders were reading at grade level. But in 2014, this jumped to 73 percent.

“When any school improves students’ reading proficiency by more than 35 percent in one year, people notice. When most of those students are from low-income homes, something special is happening,” says John Annis, senior vice president at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, lead organization for the local grade-level reading campaign.

The improvement is the result of a community effort to boost reading achievement at Alta Vista and several other schools — including a recent GLR campaign-led push building upon the Foundation’s history of education work.

At Alta Vista, a 7-week summer program for 230 pre-kindergarten through second-grade students, addressing school readiness and summer learning loss, was offered, thanks to local donors Mary Kay and Joe Henson; an additional school social worker and masters-level teachers were hired; and the principal, Barbara Shirley, was named Florida’s 2014 Principal of the Year.

And there’s more to come from a local GLR campaign with bountiful resources, thanks to its many community partners and the strong relationship between the Community Foundation and The Patterson Foundation, a Sarasota-based private foundation that also supports the GLR agenda nationwide.

“What The Patterson Foundation has provided in leadership, guidance and introductions to the right people, you can’t put a price tag on,” says Annis.

Sarasota’s GLR campaign began after a 2012 Campaign gathering in Denver that Annis attended, at the urging of The Patterson Foundation’s President and CEO Debra Jacobs.

“After connecting with the Campaign nationally, we knew there was a significant opportunity for Sarasota to tackle grade-level reading as a community,” says Jacobs. “Introducing the concept to the Community Foundation proved to be a win, building upon its literacy work and role as a convener.”

Returning inspired, Annis shared what he learned. “The Campaign seemed like the logical next step,” says Community Foundation President and CEO Roxie Jerde. “Our board created an education task force that researched for a year before recommending that we join.”

Sarasota’s history of literacy work includes partnering with the school district, Sarasota County Libraries, the Early Learning Coalition, Children First and others. In 2013, the Community Foundation concluded a five-year, $3.2 million literacy initiative — funded through its Allen Wirtz Nobbe and Jo Bowen Nobbe Fund — targeted toward children from birth through eighth grade.

Since joining the GLR Campaign in 2013, Sarasota has narrowed its focus to birth through third grade and the Community Foundation board approved $1 million to address school readiness and summer learning loss. More than 25 organizations are partnering with the foundation.

While it is a county-wide campaign, the Community Foundation began intensified work in neighborhoods served by four elementary schools, including Alta Vista. The schools have the highest rates of students in poverty and — as the task force’s data study revealed — the largest proportion of students who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade.

Strategies range from increasing the number of children attending quality pre-kindergarten programs to providing struggling students with certified reading coaches during the summer to employing a two-generation approach that addresses the economic and social services needs of vulnerable parents as well as their children.

Each month, leaders from the Community Foundation and The Patterson Foundation gather to discuss strategy, along with two former top education leaders from the region enlisted by The Patterson Foundation. While the Community Foundation continues its deep work in the targeted elementary schools, another consultant from The Patterson Foundation is inventorying existing resources to identify gaps throughout Sarasota County.

“By pulling all these smart people together to work on the same issue, we are much more likely to make progress,” says Annis. “And with our long history of education work, exceptional partners, generous donors, great school leaders and a determined community, we’re on the right track.”

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