What’s Raise Me to Read?

A Q&A with Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Experts

In 2019, the Omaha metro became the first community in Nebraska to join the nationwide Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Known locally as Raise Me to Read, the campaign is a collaborative effort by schools, government agencies, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, and foundations to improve students’ reading proficiency by the end of third grade so they are prepared to succeed in school and life.

We visited with national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading consultants Ron Fairchild and Becky Miles-Polka to get their insights on this important initiative and learn more about other communities who are finding success. The Campaign focuses on three key tenants: school readiness, school attendance and summer learning.

School Readiness

As early as 18 months, low-income children begin to fall behind in vocabulary development and other skills critical for school success. Parents, doctors and childcare providers play an enormous role in closing this gap.

School Attendance

Starting in the early grades, the percentage of students missing 10 percent of the school year can reach remarkably high levels, and these early absences can rob students of the time they need to develop literacy skills.

Summer Learning

Students lose ground academically when they are out of school for the summer. Low-income students lose an average of more than two months in reading achievement in the summer.

Raise Me to Read is supported by MOEC (Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium), Iowa West Foundation, the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, Family, Inc. and United Way of the Midlands.

A:  “The Campaign really began fundamentally as an effort to disrupt generational poverty, and we’ve been unequivocal from the beginning that our concern is about low-income kids. One of the best predictors we have for whether or not kids are going to be successful in the future is whether or not they reach the critical milestone of third grade-reading proficiency. We also made a rather intentional decision early on in the campaign that this was going be about a broader community effort. Schools are critical and vital and important, but we also have to look beyond schools and support the great work that schools are doing. … Many low-income kids are not reading proficiently and … [it’s important] to tackle issues around school readiness, school attendance, summer and after-school learning. Those things working together, coupled with quality teaching in every context, I think is very unique about the campaign.”

A: “Successful campaigns are good at engaging a wide group of partners, some expected, some unlikely allies. One community shared that they have this carpenters union involved in their campaign, building bookcases for libraries in different places throughout their communities. We’ve seen an enormous amount of creativity around how you mobilize interesting partners and folks who may not be expected to be involved in an effort like this.

Second, the strength of the lead organization is a critical and decisive factor. You’ve got to have someone thinking about this in a strong management role from day to day to really drive implementation and make a strong move from planning from implementation.

The depth of local philanthropic support, the role of both private funders as well as public agencies, in setting the course and doubling down on this [is very important]. This is kind of a classic challenge because 3rd grade reading is a lagging measure, and it takes a while to see real, substantial progress. It does take patient investment.”

A: “Creating data sharing agreements between partners [can be challenging.] We had a panel today about some best practices in our network that have been put in place. In order to be able to measure movement toward goals, you have to have data coming in from multiple places. So, data can be a big challenge.

Engaging families in this work can be a big challenge. If it’s just professionals talking about this between themselves and not having a strategy to work with families, that can be a challenge. That’s a hard thing sometimes for professionals to change their mindset about where meetings are held, when meetings are held, that kind of thing.”

A: “I think you have a model in Omaha that I think is pretty extraordinary that I want to share with the broader network. Parent University out of the Learning Community is one of the best models. The work they are doing over there… I think you’ve got one of the best right in your own backyard.”

Read more about Parent University here — https://www.parentuomaha.org/.

A: “I think that investment in parent capacity building and leadership — we’re seeing that in campaign communities around the community, really tapping into the fact that parents are their kids’ first teachers and most important coaches and mentors. We aren’t going to be successful until we help parents be successful in their roles. Building capacity for parents to help other parents, building that leadership pipeline, is really critical.”

A: “We have communities we can point to who have made measurable progress in improving school readiness rates for low-income kids. We have a set of practices and strategies and programs that communities are using to scale that work and to make district-wide and community-wide improvements.

We also have places that have made measurable reductions in chronic absenteeism. That’s an area and indicator that we’ve had at the forefront of the campaign since its inception. And then also places that are literally standing in the gaps that exist for kids and families in the summer months and creating opportunities that transform summers into seasons of learning rather than seasons of setback for kids. So it’s really rewarding to be at a point in the Campaign where you can point to those places.

For communities that are just getting going, my constant encouragement is don’t start from scratch or square one. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are other communities who have learned some hard-fought lessons about what it takes to be successful.”

A: “I think part of that is incumbent on the local community. If you look across the network, we have some good examples of what that looks like. Sioux City, IA is a good example. They went through a process to figure out where they had the biggest gaps, and it was in the birth-three [age] phase for children. So they got an infusion of capital to launch a messaging campaign that created ways for the community to be involved, like participating in book distributions. They developed some videos about how to read to kids and they’re being shown in places where families gather, laundromats, quick clinics, things like that.

You have to create ways for people to be involved, and one is for the whole community to understand the value of this, but also the little things that people can do. Can they donate some books? Can they make sure their neighbor has a back-up plan if her car breaks down to help get the kids to school?”

A: “Some communities have done walking school bus. They’ll organize people in their neighborhood to round up kids in the morning and get them to school directly or to a bus stop to help out. We’ve got places that have identified a need for mentors or tutors and have mobilized hundreds of people to come out and read to and tutor struggling readers. It lends itself really well to community participation. There are a lot of different ways to do it, but I think this notion of how to involve and engage people best comes from the community because they’re the only ones that know what is most needed. When you can identify a need and it’s tangible and concrete and people know it’s part of something bigger, you’re not going to have a problem getting people to volunteer.

We had a fun example, a restaurant owner in Florida is busy at lunch and dinner, but their restaurant was sitting empty in the mornings during the summer. So they opened up their restaurant for kids to have breakfast in the summer. As they feed kids breakfast, they have volunteers come in to do reading with the kids. It’s stuff like that you would never think of, but it’s creative solutions that come from communities that get together and say this is an important issue for all of us to care about and there surely is something we can do.”

About Ron Fairchild

In his current position as president and CEO of the Smarter Learning Group, a national education consulting firm, Ron Fairchild helps cities and communities identify proven solutions and strategies to improve public education. Prior to starting the firm, Ron served as the founding CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. He was also executive director of its predecessor organization, the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University from 2002 through 2009.

Ron serves as the lead on the community solutions assurance of the Campaign.  He is responsible for managing the GLR Support Center, which delivers technical assistance in the areas of school readiness, attendance, and summer learning to more than 240 communities across the country that are engaged in efforts to move the needle on third grade reading proficiency.

About Becky Miles-Polka

Becky Miles-Polka serves as a trusted advisor to non-profit leaders, coalitions, funders, public and private sector leaders engaged in improving the well-being of communities and the people who live in them. She brings experience in community change, population health and maternal-child health. Becky has worked closely with schools in the design and implementation of school based and school linked health services as well as connecting health and education partners to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families. Becky is a Senior Consultant to the Campaign for Grade Level Reading serving as the State Lead for Iowa and has provided leadership for the Campaign’s Healthy Readers Initiative and School Readiness focus area as a member of the senior leadership team. Previously, Becky served as the Executive Director of Healthy Communities at Iowa Health System in Des Moines, Iowa. She received her MS from the University of Colorado and is a Registered Nurse, Certified Nurse Midwife and registered yoga teacher.

To learn more about the efforts of Raise Me to Read partners in our community, take a look at this article about Omaha Public Schools’ plan to increase their students reading proficiency.

About the Author

Brayton is the Manager of Communications at United Way of the Midlands. She spends most of her days writing press releases, letters, brochures and more, but she wouldn’t have it any other way! She loves to travel and is always daydreaming about her next adventure. When she’s at home, you’ll most likely find her hanging out with her family and friends, eating chocolate or reading a good book.

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