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February 17, 2016

United Way of Manatee County Turns to the Community to Uplift Grade-Level Reading

The United Way of Manatee County develops resources and partnerships that make a measurable difference in people’s lives. How we do that has been undergoing a transformation for several years, and it is playing out in our work with the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in Manatee County.

For the past four years, we have been thoughtfully transforming from a fundraiser on behalf of others – funding individual programs, in individual communities that impact individuals – to a community change agent that works collectively to ensure community-level impact.

Turning Outward to Uncover Community Aspirations
As a starting point, we reached out to more than 400 members of our community using the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation’s approach to community conversations. We started with four basic questions, and the first was this: What are your aspirations for your community?

What we learned was that our community wanted us to focus on equitable access to education for all of our children.

Connecting with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
In 2013, we learned about the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (CGLR), a national movement started by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that now includes 200+ communities – 16 of them in Florida – focused on increasing the number of children who are reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

Why? That is the point at which children move from learning to read to reading to learn. If not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, their chances of dropping out increase significantly.

Because this movement is consistent in focus yet broad in reach, we believed it made sense for our community to join and for the United Way of Manatee County to take a leadership role in the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in Manatee County. However, we knew that we could not (and should not) do this alone… it takes citizens, nonprofits, businesses, media and government/libraries/schools all working together toward this common goal to drive significant change.

Creating an Inclusive Approach
In 2014, The United Way of Manatee County formed a team of founding partners comprised of the United Way of Manatee County, School District of Manatee County, Manatee Community Foundation and USF Sarasota-Manatee.

We also created a steering committee of more than 40 stakeholders to serve as a foundation for and create alignment around engaging our community in changing the trajectory for our underperforming students – concentrating on those whose lives are impacted by the circumstances of poverty.

With United Way functioning as the backbone organization, tasked with weaving together the various sectors of our community, the School District of Manatee County hired a specialist to work with our community’s 15 Title-I schools on multiple strategies that support the campaign’s success. The Manatee Community Foundation and United Way of Manatee County have also jointly hired a director of community engagement to engage the broader community in the work. USF Sarasota-Manatee helped us get started with funding a person to develop our Community Solutions Action Plan – the plan required by the national campaign– in partnership with our steering committee.

Our goal is to raise awareness, develop long-term partnerships, and create system changes that impact policy, when necessary, in the following areas:

  1. School Readiness
  2. Attendance
  3. Summer Learning

Those areas are viewed through a lens of parent engagement and healthy beginnings for children. With an approach rooted in the heart of our community – we are just getting started to make a tangible difference in the lives of our children and their families.

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