Pacesetter Communities Race for Children’s Literacy in Florida, North Carolina and Iowa - Early Learning Nation

Pacesetter Communities Race for Children’s Literacy in Florida, North Carolina and Iowa

Vaccine distribution is under way, but the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic carry on, and the fallout will continue in many if not most communities for years to come. The various efforts to improve literacy rates among young children have been dealt severe challenges, but early learning communities around the country have proven their mettle throughout the crisis.

Two complementary reasons for this resilience are the fierce commitment of everyone involved in the endeavor—and their willingness to band together and learn from each other. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (CGLR), launched in 2010 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, plays a central role in fueling collaboration across the sector and around the country. The organization focuses on promoting early school success in economically challenged families and communities.

Introducing the Pacesetter Communities

“We’ve faced hurricanes and floods before. Our strategies for disasters are broad enough to accommodate anything because we all work together to put our children and families first.” — Debra Lanham, director of Research & Development, Down East Partnership for Children
Every year, CGLR celebrates the communities that exemplify the power of early learning. Representatives from these collaborative efforts, which bring together funders, nonprofits and advocates, upload stories to the CLIP portal (see sidebar). Those that “report observable progress” are selected as Pacesetters. “We applaud the civic leaders and local funders whose time, talent, energy and imagination have fueled progress in these Pacesetter Communities,” says Ralph Smith, managing director of CGLR.

Yolie Flores, CGLR’s chief learning officer, emphasizes the importance of recognizing what’s working in the field so leaders won’t have to reinvent the wheel. “We’ve gathered such rich stories of impact,” she says.

I recently Zoomed with three Pacesetters to learn more about the challenges they’ve faced and how they’re overcoming them. Here’s what they said:

Indian River, Fla.

“Change happens at the speed of trust” is a motto adopted from management guru Stephen Covey by the Learning Alliance, the backbone organization for Indian River County’s Moonshot Moment Literacy Movement. Marie O’Brien, the organization’s director of Digital Media and Community Outreach, says the principle holds true in a region distinguished by economic extremes and nearly 70% of the children are eligible for free and reduced lunch. “There’s very little middle income here,” she says.

“When we bring the bookmobile into neighborhoods after work time,” says Marie O’Brien of the Learning Alliance, “it’s often only 1-2 hours until it gets dark. We have so many people that continue to come out of their apartments to ask for books, that we resort to using our phone flashlights to help children select a few books they will love.”

The Moonshot Community Action Network (MCAN) comprises 150 community partners, including law enforcement, hospitals and the local United Way, among others. O’Brien readily admits that MCAN borrows good ideas from other places, such as Philadelphia’s Reading Captains. The so-called Moonshot is named for the scale of its ambition—to get all children ready for kindergarten and 90% reading proficiently by the end of third grade—as well as the proximity of Cape Canaveral Air Force Base and the Kennedy Space Center.

When an organization enters a new neighborhood and offers services, both sides need to trust each other; the trusted messengers are essential. MCAN fields community members with deep personal connections to operate in public housing projects.

CGLR has recognized the Moonshot Moment coalition as a Pacesetter for eight consecutive years because of the robust network of collaborations it stewards and for its diligence in reporting these enterprises so other communities can learn from them.

Like other civic groups, the Learning Alliance and Moonshot Moment members shifted gears when the pandemic struck, devoting time and resources to distribution of laptops and other necessities, but they always kept their eyes on their North Star: early literacy.

Partners are united around six bold goals:

  1. All community members understand that literacy is the gateway to success, and are engaged in and promoting a “learners to earners” literacy culture.
  2. Families make school attendance a monthly goal because every day counts, start to finish.
  3. All educators are proficient in the science of teaching and reading, thereby creating enough quality classrooms to meet the needs of early learners, birth to grade 3.
  4. All children in need from Pre-K through grade 3 will be provided impactful academic extended learning opportunities (in school, afterschool and summer).
  5. Advocating for making birth to grade 3 an essential service and top priority supported by sustainable funding.
  6. All parents are trained as their child’s first teacher, knowing that learning begins at birth.

For O’Brien and the Learning Alliance, these goals fuel every meeting, every phone call and email—before, during and after the pandemic.

Edgecombe and Nash Counties, North Carolina

I caught Debra Lanham, director of Research & Development at the Down East Partnership for Children, and her three volunteers in the midst of packing 82 baskets filled with masks, gloves, sanitizer and other necessities. The baskets, destined for six child care centers, five elementary schools, 10 faith-based partners and six summer learning/emergency feeding sites are just one facet of a larger mission: launching every child as a healthy, lifelong learner by third grade.

Down East belongs to the North Carolina Partnership for Children’s Smart Start coalition, which is devoted to:

  • Increasing access to high-quality child care

  • Improving early literacy
  • Preventing early childhood obesity
  • Providing local communities with a place for parents, leaders and providers to come together to tackle the big issues facing early child care and education
  • Giving parents the tools they need to raise healthy, successful children
  • Increasing the number of children who receive the appropriate developmental screenings

A former teacher and a grandmother of six, Lanham admits that there’s been havoc in her community as a result of Covid, but she says they’ve risen to the moment. “We’ve faced hurricanes and floods before. Our strategies for disasters are broad enough to accommodate anything because we all work together to put our children and families first.”

As the pandemic took root in her community, manufacturing giant Cummins, already a key supporter of the local CGLR campaign, Read to Rise, came together with The Tar River Region United Way and Boys & Girls Clubs in support of families in Edgecombe and Nash Counties. Among the offerings:

  • A virtual gardening club conducted via YouTube and Facebook
  • Online play and learn groups
  • Distribution of fresh vegetables along with educational materials for conducting taste tests
  • Summer learning/Summer feeding sites aligned with COVID rules
  • Virtual forums providing various technology training for community members and caretakers accustomed to ZOOM, Microsoft TEAMS, Facebook Live, etc.
  • Online Facebook videos demonstrating parents reading to their children
  • Watch parties featuring Dolly Parton and her Imagination Library

The CLIP That Holds Us Together

Sign up for Community Learning for Impact & Improvement Platform (or CLIP; registration required) to discover success stories about what’s working in early learning communities that are part of the nationwide network of Campaign for Grade-Level Reading communities.  Last year, 171 communities from 45 states shared 500+ stories in either/both Rounds 1 or 2 of the What’s Working XChange.

Peer review is built into CLIP. “The combination of local knowledge and real world experience that adds heft and credibility to the Pacesetter Recognition process,” says CGLR’s Ralph Smith.

“CLIP is the Google of our field,” says the Learning Alliance’s Marie O’Brien.

Lanham says a network of more than 50 churches and congregations has proven to be a valuable way of reaching immigrant communities, inner city communities and rural communities.

“It’s nice to be recognized for how hard you’ve worked,” Lanham says about being named a Pacesetter. “We’ve made progress in spite of multiple adversities.” She credits consistent follow-through for these accomplishments. In addition, North Carolina Partnership for Children and Grade Level Reading’s staff dispenses reliable advice and suggestions.

Central Iowa

“The beauty of CGLR,” says Kate Bennett, Community Impact Officer with United Way of Central Iowa, “is the way it brings communities together.” In particular, she mentions a community awareness campaign based on compelling research from CGLR revealing that children from families with low-income are almost twice as likely to have a reported developmental delay or disability as children from families with higher-income.

Her organization strives both to help individuals and to advance systemic change. In the past year, it has begun to bring equity into every conversation around its three major goals—education, income and health.

In addition to being the major funder for nonprofits in the region, it drives volunteerism and advocacy. Bennett calls it the backbone of the region, and says its swift pivot to a COVID response meant that rural and urban Iowans alike had better access to resources and information. At the same time, she acknowledges that the pandemic has put roadblocks in the way of achieving all the region’s long-term goals. For example, from 2008 to 2018, the high school graduation rate rose from 83.4% to 93.4%. At this point, it’s too early to say how much they’ve backslid from their goal of 95%.

Bennett worries about the most vulnerable children in her region, “Kids are being lost. Kids are being left behind. And that becomes all our responsibility.” She sees protecting and supporting the childcare workforce as one of the most effective ways of mitigating damage. One worker, she recalls, had her life threatened when she informed a parent that a child couldn’t come back for two weeks after a potential exposure. “12 dollars an hour isn’t nearly enough for that kind of stress,” she says.

When I ask Bennett what gives her hope, she immediately mentions the Vision to Learn program, which operates a mobile vision clinic and has distributed 2000 pairs of glasses to 1000 students (one for home, one for school) last year. She recalls a child being fitted for glasses declaring, “How did I never know this is what the world looks like?”

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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