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May 25, 2021

Reach Out and Read: New ways and processes to improve the system

Abby Rolland, The Patterson Foundation Fellow 2020/21

There’s always room for improvement.

That phrase may sound cliché and obvious, but I’ve learned from six years of experience working in multiple foundations, traditional nonprofits, and schools, that no program or idea is perfect. There’s always room to improve, to grow, to change.

That mindset permeated one of my earliest projects at The Patterson Foundation (TPF). Beth Duda, director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (SGCLR), asked me to 1) Critically look at the SCGLR model of Reach Out and Read (ROR), which focuses on asset-limited families, and 2) Work with current SCGLR members who guide the current ROR program to identify and implement ways to improve it.

A brief background of ROR – it’s a national program that connects children and their families with developmentally appropriate books through partnerships with pediatric providers. From ages 0–5, children have 12, and sometimes more, appointments with their pediatrician. These pediatric providers not only offer parents and guardians insights into their child’s physical health, but share information about the development of mental and emotional health as well. Reading is critical to healthy brain development, and so ROR pediatricians play vital roles in helping share the importance of reading with each family. At the end of every visit, each family receives a prescription to read, and a child gets a book, which helps build their home library.

Sounds like a simple program, right?

Think again. Who orders and pays for the books if it’s not the pediatric offices? Who delivers the books to those offices? Who organizes the books to be delivered? When and how are the books prepared to be delivered? Which books are chosen? How is inventory replenished? Are there books for both English-speakers and children who grow up in the U.S. but in a Spanish-speaking household? Who works with the pediatric offices and connects them to the national ROR program? How do new physicians learn about the program?

It’s a lot to think about. SCGLR had the same mindset of enhancement when it set up the local ROR affiliate. So not only do children get one book at the pediatrician’s office, but if their parents mail in a postcard (pre-paid by SCGLR), the child receives a “bonus book.” In addition, SCGLR asks that each parent fill out a brief survey about the number of times a child reads/is read to a week, if the family has and uses a library card, etc. Parents fill out the same survey each time the family returns to the office, which helps track data after one well-visit, after two, etc.

Those “extras” add multiple other layers of logistics and more questions.

To return to the second paragraph, Beth asked me to look at the program with a fresh perspective and speak with the SCGLR team members working on it now.

What followed were many conversations and brainstorming sessions about how the program, already serving 12 clinics and providing approximately 13,500 books a year to children and their families, could be even better. Through these sessions, we thought of how to systematize processes and procedures, identified ways to improve current materials, added new materials, and built connections with each other to expand upon this amazing program.

Eight months later, and I’m thrilled with the system we’ve built. ROR is a complicated program with many moving parts and many people involved, but now there’s an explanation, a tool, a process, a calendar event for everything. At the same time, we understand that things change, and adaptability and effective communication channels continue to underscore all of the new systems in place. We hope that if someone new joins the team, they will quickly understand the process. And if another community wants to know how and why we do it, we can (and want to) share all of these resources with them!

I’m quite proud of what we’ve accomplished together. On that note, I’d be remiss not to thank the amazing SCGLR/ROR team members. There is no way that this project could have been improved without them. Beth, the leader of it all, provided guidance throughout. Pierrette Kelly has built incredibly strong relationships with the clinics and shared their perspectives on what could be better (we never want to arrive with the answer!). Pierrette knows ROR inside and out, and her institutional knowledge has been extremely helpful. Carolina Franco manages the SCGLR storage unit and provided vital perspectives on how the process looks through her lens. She also pointed out that we needed to bolster the number of Spanish materials that we share with the clinics. Donna Puhalovich has adeptly handled the “bonus book” process for years. She always asked insightful questions and challenged me to make sure the things I thought would work actually would. Marla Smith, the new connector at the clinics, joined halfway through this process and had so many wonderful ideas on improving the survey collection and data process. She implemented those ideas effectively.

Creating a new system, processes, and procedures for an already established program isn’t easy. It took a lot of time, effort, and energy, and I’m so grateful for the people who have made it happen.

We’re not finished. Even though ROR on the Suncoast has distributed more than 60,000 books since 2017, we will continually find new ways and processes to improve the system.

As a result, I have no doubt that through a continual mindset of improvement and asking, “What can be better?” SCGLR and ROR can make an even greater impact in this region.

As Vince Lombardi says (and what TPF CEO Debra Jacobs reminds us), “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

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