5 lessons learned in building the village of support for early-grade reading

5 lessons learned in building the village of support for early-grade reading

By HealthConnect Fellow Malai Amfahr, Story County Reads Director at United Way of Story County 

In 2012 our community put a stake in the ground, united around ensuring children in our community can read by the end of third grade. The rallying cry centered on eliminating barriers to learning for young students and bringing to light the real struggle that some kids face with literacy. 

The coalition, called Ames Reads, was born from and became a part of the national movement called the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Several significant studies demonstrate that meeting literacy benchmarks by third grade is a key predictor of academic success later in life, including graduation and the pursuit of post-secondary opportunities. 

In other words, if children fall behind in obtaining literacy skills early, they have a very difficult time catching up.

Towards fourth and fifth grade, curriculum typically shifts from “learning how to read” to “reading to learn," making the case for grade-level reading even more critical. Imagine the frustration that some of our youth experience when those basic literacy skills don’t click and outside factors, such as hunger or few books in the home, make it that much harder to learn. Short of wide-scale education reform, the supports for some kids have to come from outside the school system. In the case of our community, it came from the creation of a coalition dedicated to this complex issue, a village with a vision for change. 

Back in 2012, I was a voice at the table speaking up in support of helping our kids with literacy. As a direct-service provider who worked with children and families with very low income, I viewed education as a pathway out of poverty.

My own “why” for this work stems from deep roots of personal experience and seeing the power education holds to lift individuals. As the daughter of an immigrant from Southeast Asia, I remember being the only kid in the classroom who had a parent that spoke little English. Although my mother was supportive and had high expectations for me to do well, she was not able to read books with me or help with homework. I bloomed late in literacy and never bloomed at all with math. The spark I needed came from extra coaching from other family members, and eventually, experiencing books as a gateway towards unlocking my imagination.

Once I connected reading and creative writing, everything clicked. These skills were unquestionably necessary for me to achieve post-secondary education and a career in leadership within the nonprofit sector. My empathy for children who struggle with academics is limitless, because I remember being that kid. Collectively, personal experiences from my childhood and professional ones from working in lower-resourced neighborhoods led me to believe in the framework of Ames Reads. It takes more than a school system to help children learn how to read. In some cases, it takes even more than a village. 

Years have passed since 2012 and the current state of our coalition has also changed. We’ve expanded from one community to embracing the entire county. The number of kids we seek to impact has grown from approximately 1,990 to 5,000. Now as Story County Reads, we have more partners and resources, a stronger capacity for change, and a broader geographic reach for our vision. 

My role has also evolved from a community partner to the coalition lead. The process of expansion has been a continuous learning experience and there is still much to do to support our thousands of kids within the communities we cover. For example, aligning resources and programs to avoid duplication requires innovation. It requires shared accountability. As our team works together to infuse literacy within different program settings, we also have to be willing to make adjustments and this isn’t always easy.  

The recent introduction of systems-thinking strategies has provided an exciting framework for us to integrate. In spite of our changes, and maybe even because of them, it’s more important than ever to not lose sight of the “why” that binds and holds us to our collective vision for children in our community. 

These are five lessons that have emerged so far of what it takes to build the village of support for each child while still staying true to the mission of “why."               

1. Get clear on what the concept of engagement truly means to each stakeholder.

Parental engagement may mean something very different from the eyes of the parent verses the eyes of the school administration. While school districts may think of “engagement” as participation in school-organized activities, such as conferences or open houses, engagement for a parent with a child that is struggling may mean that the administration builds trust and has open communication when they haven’t before. The bridge between parents and schools cannot be built without first understanding what engagement means to each party.     

2. Understand your elevator speech and then dismantle it.

As a coalition leader, I can shift easily into presentation-mode about why literacy is important and what the work of the coalition requires. However, I’m beginning to understand that the motivations for stakeholders and individuals to be a part of a collective require something more than just a solid message. Although messaging is important, the intention behind the message matters, too. Individuals who believe in this intention and can connect to it from their own authentic space will solidly help the collective move the needle.     

3. School districts are different than youth-serving nonprofits but the core is the same.

Nonprofits are not public-sector entities, and for obvious reasons, there are many systemic differences between organizations and school districts. However, one similarity is foundational: The heart of the “why” for both is still humanity. Our understanding that both districts and nonprofits are in the business of serving a greater good is enough of a thread to work towards bringing the two entities together under a common vision.         

4. Asset-based community building ensures a place for everyone.

My professional background is not in education, but rooted in community building and engagement. The experience of leading Story County Reads has taught me that although literacy is at the center of the work, the methodology of changing the system is still fundamentally the same as helping a neighborhood or team of residents seeking a better quality of life. The coalition that is successful clears space for everyone to be authentically engaged and creates the conditions for people to do what they do best.    

5. Be organic.

Coalitions should have both a clear and consistent vision while remaining open to the changing conditions of the community. Being responsive to the needs of the community means a willingness to accept that becoming stagnant may lead to a coalition falling apart. Coalitions by their very nature are rooted in change. Something within current conditions is motivating stakeholders to join together and collectively work towards shifting the status quo. Understanding that change is inherently embedded in the function of the coalition allows a sense of openness necessary to embrace that methodologies cannot become fixed. 

As I look ahead to the potential that 2020 brings with Story County Reads, I know more lessons will emerge in what it takes to continue building the village of supports around children. I’m excited to embrace these lessons because there is a lot at stake.