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November 16, 2017

Rewriting the Rule Book on Child Literacy

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Betsey Russell, independent freelance writer and marketing consultant at Last Word, LLC, and originally appeared in Southeastern Council of Foundations’ Inspiration magazine.

It’s a fact no one would dispute: Every child should be able to read on grade level when he or she begins third grade. That’s when “learning to read” shifts into “reading to learn.”

Yet 67 percent of children nationwide don’t achieve this benchmark. For low-income families, that number soars to 80 percent. Children who don’t master third-grade reading levels on time are less likely to secure a high school diploma and more likely to enter the criminal justice system.

The circumstances that contribute to this lack of achievement are many and often have little to do with a child’s elementary school teachers. Instead, factors such as lack of early childhood education, poor school attendance because of homelessness or family transience, and loss of literacy skills over long, empty summers all have profound effects on a child’s ability to learn to read and to continue to hone his or her skills.

Fortunately, the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (CGLR) gives funders a way to tackle the challenge of grade-level reading in ways that are designed by and tailored to the needs of their communities.

Created in 2011, the CGLR provides a systematic framework for local funders, businesses, government agencies, schools, nonprofits, families, and others to work together to ensure all children can read at grade level by the end of third grade. CGLR is not a one-size-fits-all model or program but an organizing tool that helps communities identify their own needs and potential solutions to align their resources accordingly.

Nearly 350 communities across the country have become part of CGLR, including more than 100 in the Southeast, and that number continues to grow.

Bringing a National Movement to Ground at Home

The Patterson Foundation (TPF), located in Sarasota, Florida, recognized the promise of CGLR in 2011 and became an early supporter.

“As economist James Heckman proved, every $1 invested in early childhood development returns more than $7 social and economic benefits. We know that investing in early reading helps our community thrive,” said Debra Jacobs, President and CEO of The Patterson Foundation. “We always look for alignment of leadership, willingness, readiness, capacity, and culture – and we found it with the national campaign.”

TPF provided funding for CGLR at the national level, including the creation of an online “Huddle” where communities can share and download information and an annual “Funder Huddle” gathering where foundations and other supporters can exchange learning successes and ideas face to face.

Shortly thereafter, TPF introduced CGLR to another local philanthropy, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

“We had been making investments in several literacy initiatives for grades K–8 but realized we needed to hone our focus to better measure outcomes,” said John Annis, Senior Vice President of Community Investment at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. “TPF took me as their guest to the first national CGLR meeting, and I was hooked.”

Annis brought information about GCLR back to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s President and CEO, Roxie Jerde, who then presented it to the board. Shortly after, the board convened an 18-month task force to research the issue and meet with members of the community, including teachers, social workers, parents, and kids. Ultimately, the board decided to make CGLR a focus of its education funding through 2020.

CGLR asks communities to consider several components that contribute to grade-level reading including school readiness, chronic absenteeism, summer learning, parent engagement, and health. Communities can address one or all of those areas and must create a Community Solutions Action Plan to be considered part of the Campaign. Plans must engage multiple partners in building a community movement. With the Community Foundation of Sarasota County as a lead partner, the Sarasota County campaign began in 2012 with an initial focus on school readiness and summer learning in the area’s four highest-need schools. When a new superintendent arrived, the work expanded to focus on all CGLR components in those four schools.

In 2013, neighboring Manatee County also decided to join GCLR but specifically homed in on curbing absenteeism. United Way Suncoast and the School District of Manatee County became lead partners, dedicating a portion of the district’s Title 1 funding to place “Graduation Enhancement Technicians” in every school.

The two neighboring campaigns created a unique challenge — and an opportunity for TPF to step up its investment.

“Because Manatee and Sarasota counties share media markets, local media outlets were reporting on two separate initiatives. That became confusing,” said Beth Duda, Director of Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading at TPF.

TPF led a community effort to create the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (SCGLR) in 2015 to help clarify, strengthen, and expand the work of the national CGLR beyond the four initial schools in Sarasota County and beyond the single focus area in Manatee County. Both counties still focus on work that is most relevant to them, but TPF’s investment helps expand work that applies to both counties.

For example, TPF supported a regionwide Attendance Awareness Poster Contest in which 44,000 kids participated. Each school chose its winner, and TPF provided framed copies of the winning posters for the schools and the winners’ families and hosted celebratory events in each county to honor the winners.

“A collaboration of this scale is not always easy, but it’s well worth the extra effort,” said Annis. “As our President and CEO, Roxie Jerde, often says, ‘All of us are smarter than one of us.’ We learn from each other and have the opportunity to brainstorm, question, critique, and replicate if appropriate. Because TPF is working ‘wide’ with the regional rollout, management, and reporting on the two-county efforts, we can keep working ‘deep’ in those four high-need schools [Alta Vista, Gocio, Tuttle, and Emma E. Booker] in Sarasota County.”

The community foundation’s investment has included the creation of a summer learning academy at one elementary school that ultimately increased third-grade-level reading proficiency from 50 percent to 70 percent over three years. That program has since been adopted and replicated by the school district. Regionally, since the SCGLR began, both school districts have seen increases in the numbers of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade. They’ve also seen decreases in chronic absenteeism.

Creating a Statewide Campaign

Arkansas and Georgia are both recognized by the national CGLR for their statewide campaigns. The Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, supported by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Arkansas Community Foundation, includes hundreds of partners and addresses all four pillars of the national campaign: school readiness, parent engagement, attendance, and summer learning. In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal and his wife, Sandra, spearhead the Get Georgia Reading campaign, a coalition of hundreds of public and private sector leaders who align their work and support to get all Georgia kids on a path to reading proficiency.

In Mississippi, the design and implementation of the statewide effort is led by the Mississippi Association of Grantmakers (MAG), and supported by a public-private partnership that includes the State Department of Education, the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction at the University of Mississippi, The Phil Hardin Foundation, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, and others.

“We had state legislation mandating third-grade reading proficiency and a new state superintendent of education who was very interested in the issue,” said Sammy Moon, MAG’s director. “We wanted to look at the role philanthropy could play in addressing statewide issues.”

In response, MAG connected with a variety of public officials including Ralph Smith, the Managing Director of CGLR, and Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, President and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in neighboring Arkansas, who has been a leader in implementing CGLR in that state.

“We realized that Mississippi had the policy, and we had the K–12 system to implement it. What was missing was the local piece,” said Moon.

After several months of member exploration and planning, MAG, along with the State Department of Education and the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction, created in 2016, the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a statewide public-private venture that put all the pieces together. The state’s department of education provides staffing for the effort. The University of Mississippi offers supervision, office space, and operational support. MAG members provide funds for community implementation through a pooled fund that MAG administers.

“Our pooled fund is the first time this many funders in the state have pooled unrestricted funds in this way,” said Moon. “It sets a precedent for the kinds of things we can do together as funders and partners with the public sector.”

The Phil Hardin Foundation in Meridian, Mississippi, served as a lead donor for the fund, pledging $50,000 per year for three years in exchange for a $25,000 match from other funders.

“We liked the idea of helping communities develop their own plans and collaborative efforts,” said Lloyd Gray, the foundation’s executive director. “We also liked the idea of collaboration among the giving community in our state, and being able to put some money out there as a stimulus for others to set their own stake in this was particularly attractive.”

Other states, including North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, and Florida, also are ramping up CGLR communities with statewide campaigns. North Carolina currently has nine recognized CGLR sites, Virginia eight, Alabama three, and Florida sixteen.

Sarasota and Manatee counties, along with Delray Beach, Florida, and Springdale, Arkansas, were recognized by CGLR as “All American Cities” in 2017 for their levels of civic engagement. Twelve Southeastern communities were recognized as “Pacesetters” for leading by example to address one or more of the CGLR pillars.

“If you look at the issue, where up to 80 percent of low-income kids aren’t reading at third-grade level, you realize that no single agency or entity can address it on their own,” said TPF’s Duda. “CGLR provides a structure that avoids placing blame and creates awareness of reading proficiency as a community issue. Plus, it provides ways for a community to identify its own aspirations and find parts for everyone to play. In the end, you get a more supportive culture for children and families, which ultimately makes the community stronger and more sustainable.”

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