“What we offer our children tells them what it is we really value.”
This quote from Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, captures the sentiment of funders joined by a common commitment to improve the life chances of children by ensuring that they can read proficiently by third grade. “Nine years old is already kids’ halftime,” Delisle noted, emphasized that addressing children’s difficulties in learning to read when they are in third grade and beyond is way too late. Delisle spoke these words at a recent gathering of more than 100 local, state and regional funders convened by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
The gathering, which was called a “Funder-to-Funder Huddle” to signify a break and coming together as a prelude to action, was held in Washington, DC, June 6-7. It was designed to thank funders for their commitments of time, talent and resources and to forge a learning community to strengthen and accelerate their shared work. The event featured thought-provoking presentations and discussions of challenges, solutions, encouraging results and areas where we need to see better and faster progress.
The program began Friday afternoon with a chance for participants to stroll the “Gallery Walk,” a display of colorful exhibits highlighting the Campaign priorities of school readiness, attendance, summer learning, successful parents, healthy readers and work of state and local Grade-Level Reading campaigns. The evening was capped off with a reception and awards ceremony featuring remarks by Jim Shelton, Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. Diana Bonta, trustee at the Annie E. Casey Foundation presented a Pacesetter Program Honors award to Austin Beutner, founder and chairman of Vision To Learn, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles that provides glasses to schoolchildren in need.
While many children are eligible for financial help to receive glasses, a lack of access to regular doctor visits and screening prevents some 250,000 children in California alone from getting glasses they need to see the board, read a book, study math or participate in class. More than 89 percent of those served by Vision To Learn live in poverty and 87 percent are children of color. Bringing a mobile clinic directly to schools and community organizations, Vision To Learn has provided more than 20,000 with eye exams and more than 16,000 with free glasses in less than two years. UCLA researchers say it yields measurable improvement in children’s grades and improves the classroom learning environment. “Being able to participate more in class makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger,” says one young girl who acknowledged she rarely raised her hand in class before she got her glasses. Watch a three minute video about Vision to Learn.
On Saturday morning, the Funder-to-Funder Huddle began with a panel of federal officials moderated by Suzanne Immerman, director of strategic partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Participants included George Askew, chief medical officer with the Administration for Children and Families (ACF); Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education with ED; Salin Geevarghese, deputy assistant secretary for international and philanthropic innovation at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); Sandra Toro, senior library officer at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS); David Willis, director of home visiting and early childhood systems at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); and Ekaterina Zoubak, public health advisor for the substance abuse mental health services administration of HHS.
The panelists highlighted initiatives from early health and home visiting interventions to improvements in the quality of early education to addressing the social and emotional challenges of children who have experienced trauma and mental health issues. Panelists also emphasized the need to meld and mold these efforts in a broader context of lifting families out of poverty through community-based efforts incorporating affordable housing, jobs creation, transportation and accessible services. “This has to be all hands on deck,” said Geevarghese. Two panelists illustrated the power of comprehensive early interventions, George Askew MD and Sandra Toro PhD, spoke with authority on the power of comprehensive early interventions as graduates of Head Start.
Don Attore, Princial of Attore and Associates and a partner in supporting Vision To Learn, posed a question that served as a rallying cry for the group for the remainder of the gathering: “Where is the outrage on this whole spectrum of issues? How do we get people angry about the statistics?”
“These are noisy times, and it is really hard to pierce through the noise with rational responses,” said Geevarghese, who along with others stressed the need to be armed with powerful data on the economic consequences of failing to ensure children become productive citizens. “Mayors care about the economic imperative and being left behind,” he said. “We have to move people from outrage to action,” echoed Willis. One promising effort to break through programmatic and funding siloes cited by Delisle and Immerman included state support teams as part of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant.
Toro also noted the critical role of libraries in not only children’s literacy development but in meeting families’ basic needs. Librarians are being called upon “to act as educators and social workers, help families find jobs and health care and come up with programs in 40 different languages,” she said.
Immediately following the panel, Huddle participants participated in a brief table talk to provide reactions to the panel and give feedback about how the Campaign can serve as a better bridge to the federal agenda as it impacts our shared work. The Huddle participants found the federal agency panel very relevant to their work and noted that it “was refreshing to hear the feds’ passion and commitment to this work.” Funders suggested that the GLR Campaign could support spreading the word about the school climate rating index and to act as connector to federal resources and to help match collaborative partners.
Later Saturday morning, Ron Fairchild, director of the Network Communities Support Center, introduced a series of speakers to discuss their work to address the Campaign’s three community solution areas: school readiness, attendance and summer learning. “Our aspiration is to answer the question of what works, where and why,” noted Fairchild. “We want to function as a hub to spread these examples.” The speakers presented in the style of “TED talks,” named for the nonprofit organization that spreads innovative ideas through short, powerful talks on major social issues.
Chana Edmond-Verley of the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan illustrated the plight of children facing daunting odds of success through the metaphor of increasing numbers of children “pulled by the currents down the river to a future of despair” while a limited number of adults struggle to rescue them out one by one. But she and others described promising efforts to save more children and involve more adults, such as:
- Gena O’Keefe of the Annie E. Casey Foundation described a partnership between the school readiness component of Baltimore’s GLR Campaign and a program called B’More for Healthy Babies. The effort has brought together federal, state and city resources, foundations and service providers to dramatically reduce infant mortality in Baltimore in the last four years. “Like the Grade-Level Reading Campaign, this is a population-level initiative that requires long-term and very patient but outraged responses,” noted O’Keefe.
- Anthony Trotman of the Franklin County, Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services described Columbus Kids, a program that provides learning “check-ups” at six-month intervals to help parents and early childhood providers monitor and improve young children’s school readiness. Since 2010, the program has enrolled 14,000 children, and the majority of those referred have shown improvement from screening to screening. “Children are getting help before they start kindergarten and their families are becoming more accustomed to working with their children at home,” noted Trotman.
- David Brody of First 5 Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz Reading Corps described the impact of an effort to adopt the Minnesota Reading Corps model, which trains AmeriCorps members to provide intensive literacy tutoring for at risk young children in early childhood and early-grades classrooms. He cited data showing that children in the Santa Cruz program who had a Reading Corps Tutor were doing twice as well as their peers who did not have the tutors.
- Sue Renner of the David and Laura Merage Foundation described Early Learning Ventures, a model of shared services that helps to centralize and streamline early childhood program operations to keep costs down to free up more time and resources to improving the quality and accessibility of early childhood education. Renner said that investing in a “virtual operations system” has resulted in significant cost efficiencies and improvements in the quality and availability of care.
- Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, outlined the challenges and objectives of the Campaign’s core effort to reduce chronic absence in the early grades. She described key strategies to improve attendance, including community-wide awareness campaigns; school efforts to promote and incentivize the importance of attendance; efforts by states, school districts and community partners to reduce and prevent chronic absence; and collaboration across sectors to address health challenges that are major contributors to chronic absence.
- Sarah Jones of the Children’s Aid Society talked about the New York City Success Mentors Corps, which pairs caring adults with chronically absent students to help improve attendance. An evaluation by Johns Hopkins University showed that students with Success Mentors gained nearly two additional weeks of school, were more likely to stay in school and maintain passing grades. The mentors work with the children, the family and the school to uncover the reasons behind chronic absence, help address those barriers and get the child engaged in school life.
- Rosie Grant of the Paterson Education Fund also talked about efforts in Paterson, New Jersey, to adopt success mentors, attendance teams and parent summits in several full-service community schools in partnership with the GLR Campaign and the Marilyn and Henry Taub Foundation.
- Sarah Pitcock of the National Summer Learning Association discussed the issue of “summer slide” and how detrimental it is in terms of reading and language loss, particularly for children in low-income families who have much lower access to summer programs. In addition, she noted, 85 percent of children from low-income families lose access to school meals in the summer, which also hampers their ability to focus and learn. Key strategies in improving access to summer learning opportunities include: driving with data (knowing how many in your community are and aren’t in a summer learning program); building demand; and creating a “big tent” for quality and evaluation. The National Summer Learning Association offers implementation support, tip sheets and case studies, and Summer Learning Day is June 20.
- Johanna Anderson of the Belk Foundation in Charlotte, North Carolina, talked about some of the distinct advantages of summer learning programs, such as the “relative simplicity of measuring summer gains” and for teachers to try new curriculum methods. The Belk Foundation is providing support for Georgia’s statewide coalition and a renewed coalition effort in Charlotte to ensure children are reading on or above grade level by the end of third grade.
- Dale Anglin of the Victoria Foundation in Newark stressed the importance of “knowing the current landscape” and explained how the National Summer Learning Association helped her foundation do a scan to determine how many children were in what programs, for how long, and what resources were in place. “All sides of the highly charged education reform debate see the need to address summer learning,” she said. “Philanthropy has the unique ability to take a long-term view, convene stakeholders and withstand political changes.” This summer, with the help of funder, the school district is expanding summer school days from half day to full day for up to 4,000 children using community providers to help extend the day.
- Chana Edmond-Verley described the DeVos Foundation’s inroads in improving access to summer enrichment programs by mobilizing the community, attacking the achievement gap and looking for opportunities for leverage and integration of efforts. She also highlighted the importance of engaging parents – the Believe 2 Become initiative held parent meetings in each of its targeted neighborhoods, drawing up to 500 parents at each meeting. Edmond-Verley further highlighted the effectiveness of partnering with churches that already have the physical space and volunteers to help deliver summer learning opportunities. “Know less – ask the people what they need, and see more – see more than deficits, see assets,” Edmond-Verley implored.
- Kristin Ehrgood of the Flamboyan Foundation, a private, family foundation focused on improving educational outcomes for children in public schools in Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, completed the roster of morning speakers by focusing on the key role of parents and families in each of the community solution areas and the Campaign as a whole. Every family wants the best for its children, she said, but teachers aren’t trained to engage families in a meaningful or results-driven way, leaving relationships between teachers and families fractured. “The teacher is the expert in education, but the family is the expert in the child,” noted Ehrgood, who emphasized that visiting with and getting to know families before school starts leads to increased attendance and school readiness. She described efforts to build more meaningful relationships between teachers and families that have yielded significant improvements in attendance and performance and a dramatic increase in attendance at teacher/parent conferences.
Prior to breaking for the morning, participants again broke into table talk discussions to provide reactions to what they heard and to lift up topics of interest for future learning. Participants requested learning opportunities on specific models, such as Early Learning Ventures and the Flamboyan Foundation’s five strategies, as well as strategies such as engaging parents, using data, and collaboration. The Campaign will offer a webinar on the Early Learning Ventures model later this summer. Watch for registration information soon.
In the afternoon, participants had a choice of attending one of two roundtable conversations on implementation strategies and funder coalitions. Discussants at the implementation strategy session included John Bartosek of the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, who discussed the My Happily Ever After Begins with Reading Campaign and shared two PSA’s recorded by celebrities who live in Palm Beach County. Carter Friend of the John T. Gorman Foundation shared the Foundation’s strategy for partnering with Maine Campaign for Grade-Level Reading sites, which includes a five-year investment for planning, implementation and sustainability. Sanam Jorjani of the Rogers Family Foundation discussed the Oakland Reads 2020 Baseline Report which provided an in-depth analysis of the current state of third-grade reading proficiency in Oakland.
The funder coalition session featured Sally Fuller of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, Nancy Van Milligen of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and Takema Robinson of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. The discussion lifted up common themes including, developing a strong steering committee, defining the rules of engagement for the funder collaborative up front and being intentional about creating a backbone organization, developing leadership, convening and learning, educating business funders, promoting a consistently branded effort and engaging local media.
In remarks during and at the conclusion of the Huddle, Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading stressed the need to not only make progress in the three community solution areas but to develop reliable measures to assess progress, focus on what happens in and outside of school and fund “the handoff” – strategies to intentionally connect the work across all three solution areas so it makes a coherent whole.
The draft of a handbook called the “Mid-Course Assessment Tool” was also circulated, with a heads-up to funders that this should be used to help local and state efforts assess where they are, measure progress and plot future action to achieve Campaign objectives. This assessment, the learning shared and connections forged at this gathering are all intended to help funders get smarter and better at turning the curve on third grade reading. “We are all doing good work and getting good outcomes for most of our grants, but the reality is that all the work we do and the time we spend and money we invest have not added up to change at the population level on the things we care about,” said Smith. “We have to convince a lot of people on our boards, staff, grantees and colleagues that we need to do better, so let’s do it, let’s do it well and let’s do it together.”