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Collaboration seen as key to improving youth literacy

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This article was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — At age three, Travis Mitchell got a first-hand lesson in the value of literacy.

Growing up in southeast Raleigh, he says, he spent many afternoons with his grandmother while his mother, a teacher, worked to earn credentials so she could get a counseling job in the Wake County public schools.

Although his grandmother had not gone to college, she “created an environment of learning,” he says. “There were books around I was required to use. There were conversations I was required to know something and share something about.”

Enriching kids with a culture of reading before they start school is critical to prepare them to succeed in school, in the workplace and in life, according to Mitchell and two other education leaders who spoke on October 9 to the Triangle Donors Forum.

The Donors Forum, hosted by Triangle Community Foundation and held at the offices of Research Triangle Park Foundation, spotlighted youth literacy, which is a focus of Triangle Community Foundation’s “People and Places” initiative to invest in pressing community needs in the region.

The challenge

Bob Saffold, who moderated the session and is vice president of the Smarter Learning Group, a national education consulting firm, said two-thirds of third graders in the U.S. do not read proficiently, a share that rises to 80 percent among third graders who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school.

In North Carolina, he said, 66 percent of fourth graders do not read proficiently, a share that rises to 78 percent among those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

According to newly released state data, one in eight of last year’s third graders throughout the state either were retained in third grade this year or are in a special program to transition to fourth grade, Saffold said.

In the Triangle, the share of last year’s third graders who were retained or are in special transition programs this year total 18 percent in Durham County, 13 percent in Orange County, 10 percent in Wake County, and 6.5 percent each in Johnston County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, he said.

Yet despite huge gaps in reading levels between low-income children and those in middle-income and more affluent families, and between what those two groups of children achieve in life, Saffold said, “it’s within our capacity to make a difference.”

Starting early

Communities in Schools of Wake County in recent years has expanded its focus to children before they start school.

“We were beginning programs in kindergarten,” Mitchell says. “We were missing something. Students were already behind.”

To bridge the gap between students who were falling behind and those who were entering kindergarten prepared to read, Communities in Schools launched programs aimed at “preventing students getting behind in the first place,” he says.

In partnership with the federally-funded Head Start pre-school program and with Meredith College, for example, Communities in Schools retrofitted the SAS Learning Center in the Kentwood community to take a “holistic approach to invest in an earlier portion of the pipeline” of students headed for kindergarten, Mitchell says.

Long-term studies have found that students who participate in pre-school programs are more likely to graduate, be employed, earn a significantly higher median annual income, own a home, have a savings account and be arrested less often, he says.

“If we’re going to change the trajectory of children, we have to start early,” said Mitchell, who joined Communities in Schools as president four years ago after a career in broadcast journalism.

Teaching, tutoring, professional development

The Hill Center in Durham takes a three-pronged approach to youth literacy, Denise Morton, director of outreach at The Hill Center and former chief academic officer for the Orange County Schools who has a doctorate in education leadership, told the Donors Forum.

With one teacher for every four students, it operates a private school that provides three hours of instruction a day in reading, math and written language to 170 children from 77 other schools in the Triangle.

It provides tutoring after-school and in the summer for students from public schools in Wake, Durham and Orange counties and from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.

And it provides professional development for teachers who want to learn its specialized technique, known as the Hill Reading Achievement Program, for reading intervention.

Over the last six years, the Hill Center has served over 12,000 educators, including 125 teachers from 13 school districts in the state who are putting those techniques into practice for the first time this year.

And the Hill Reading Achievement Program has been replicated in Geneva, El Salvador, and Colorado Springs.

The Hill Center “wants to spread understanding and services to help children learn to read and read well,” Morton said.

Collaborating on early literacy

Improving the way young children and students learn to read requires careful collaboration among public schools, nonprofits and funding organizations, the experts at the Donors Forum said.

And effective collaboration, they said, requires changing the thinking about reading programs; securing funding over multiple years from multiple funders; and collecting and sharing data to measure the impact of early-intervention reading programs.

Schools and school districts “often have real difficulty engaging with community partners” and “sometimes have a real tin ear on collaboration and public relations,” said Saffold, a former teacher and school administrator whose father also an educator.

Mitchell said “political gridlock and partisan debates” often can stifle innovation. “The environment is very risk-averse,” both at the district level and often at the school level, he said.

So collaborating with schools requires that nonprofits “change our own mindset.”

The best way to engage a school system, Mitchell said, “is to come in willing to listen to possible gaps and how to help, and bring in resources to make it easy for the principal or superintendent to engage.”

And to be effective, he said, partnerships require taking risks and working hard.

“Collaboration is messy,” he said. “Nobody wants to talk about what happens when collaboration doesn’t work. You need a willingness to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t meet your goals, retool, don’t stop.”

Adding value

Morton, who was a special education teacher for 14 years, mainly in Alamance County, said efforts to partner on youth literacy programs with public schools should begin with identifying what the schools need and want and then finding ways to work with the schools to address those needs.

Understanding the larger context of policy and funding discussions and decisions at the state legislature is key to avoid being “left in a silo,” she said, as is understanding “what you’re walking into in a school district. Every one is different.”

It also is important in approaching a school system “to know the right person to get to at the central office,” she said, “There are layers of people. You have to know who has the power or you spin wheels.”

Data essential

Equally essential is agreeing in the partnership contract with schools to gather and share data on the progress students are making.

Saffold that “one of the key barriers to effective collaboration with school systems is around the systems’ reluctance to share data needed to track progress and identify gaps in programs to tweak programs,” he said.

Morton agreed.

“It’s real important we have data,” she said. “People won’t pay attention unless there’s a proven track record.”

Mitchell said data not only are essential for funders and partners but also can make a big difference among the staff of the agencies partnering with the schools.

“If you can begin to explain to staff how effective they’re being with the use of their time,” by the end of the year they “can see how they really changed the game for their students,” he said. “Our theory of change is that programs don’t change people, relationships do.”

So having data that measure the progress of a collaborative effort has helped “increase morale and momentum for the organization internally,” he said.

Going to scale

Fostering a culture of collaboration is essential to the success of youth literacy programs, the experts told the Donors Forum.

“We make every effort to connect with as many organizations as possible with a similar focus,” Morton said.

Mitchell said funders want to know in advance what the “return on investment” will be and are looking for metrics that will gauge the “collective community impact” of their funding.

They also want to invest in partnerships that can be expanded and already have the “administrative capacity” to expand, Mitchell said.

Taking such programs “to scale,” he said, requires funding from three to five funders over multiple years.

Morton said the least successful initiatives are those that involve funding for one year only, known as “one and done.”

Collaboration essential

Schools and school districts cannot on their own improve student performance in reading, Saffold said.

“We need to craft and implement a set of community solutions to improve literacy,” he said. “There’s a major role for nonprofits and foundations to get involved to move the needle on literacy.”

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