August 22, 2018 Seemingly Simple on the Surface: Part II

 

Editor’s Note: Brian Ries is an award-winning writer and editor for the Herald-Tribune Media Group.

When talks began in 2016 it seemed like an ideal situation: The Patterson Foundation would fund a grant that would give the Sarasota Herald-Tribune the opportunity to write stories about a single complex issue that has significant impact across the community. Simple, right?

Turns out, it was a little more complex than I imagined.

Not the partnership, which has been rewarding for both parties. With the decreasing revenues of the newspaper industry, philanthropically supported journalism is a fairly new trend, but Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of The Patterson Foundation, had a strong sense of the ethical framework that partnering with a news organization demands. The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading provides us with information and contacts, we find stories that are important to our readers and retain all editorial control.

In the past two years, we’ve made a few mistakes and had many great successes, all while learning more about how a partnership like this works. We’ve even been able to educate other newspapers and foundations on the process, and helped foster a few new partnerships between philanthropy and media.

Thanks to this partnership we can engage in “solutions journalism”, a practice where we don’t just tell the news, we expose readers regularly to the issue, help them understand it and, hopefully, engage them in the effort to make it better.

We’ve covered successes in the fight to increase third-grade reading proficiency — from gains in school attendance to the expansion of summer learning opportunities — and failures in systems that need to be corrected on a local and state level.

A great example is a story we produced about how Florida’s formula for allocating early learning funds is not only outdated — it hasn’t changed in decades despite major shifts in demographics across the state — the agency responsible doesn’t even know how the formula was created in the first place. That story illuminated an unfair system that was manipulated by a powerful group of legislators and even spurred new legislation to correct the issue.

After two years and almost 100 articles, there are plenty of stories left to tell.

In conversations with our readers, I learned that many feel there is a simple path to better third-grade reading proficiency. For some, it’s specific styles of teaching, for others it’s just more money focused on the issue by the local school districts.

Nothing about grade-level reading efforts is simple. Even the multiple pillars that form the basis of the campaign — school readiness, attendance, summer learning, family engagement and health — barely scratch the surface.

At the national grade-level reading conference last year, I heard something that really resonated with me: “Not one individual, not one sector will fix this. It requires a coming together.”

Making sure a child can read at grade level requires a massive web of interconnected people, programs, and institutions that are all necessary for success. It starts before the child is born, requires great effort before the child goes to school, and relies on a myriad of factors during and after the school day.

It requires individuals, philanthropy, agencies, government, business and, yes, the media.

I am thankful every day that I — and the Herald-Tribune — are a part of that web, and part of the effort to give children the opportunities for lifelong success that they deserve.