Family Funders Focus on Reading by 3rd Grade: Part 1

What would it mean if every child could read by third grade? A bevy of recent studies have identified the end of third grade as the crucial pivot point in determining the potential for success for children born into poverty. Children who read on grade level by the end of third grade have been proven to be vastly more successful in school, in work, and in life.

“Until third grade, children are learning to read,” explains Ralph Smith, Executive Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “After third grade, they also are reading to learn. When kids are not reading by fourth grade, they almost certainly get on a glide path to poverty. Poor reading test scores are profoundly disappointing to all of us who see school success and high school graduation as beacons in the battle against intergenerational poverty.”

Philanthropic families are particularly drawn to regional and national efforts to promote and support reading readiness. Families that have been successful want to see other people’s kids have access to the opportunities and skills they need to do well. They understand that reading is a fundamental building block for any successful approach to ending the cycle of poverty. In this special two-part series of Family Giving News, we feature the core findings from a seminal new report on the importance of reading readiness, along with brief profiles of several family foundations working for change in this area.

Annie E. Casey Foundation: Leading the Charge, Inviting Others to Lead Alongside

On July 27th, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the KidsCount Data Book 2010. Among the report’s central findings: even before the 2008 recession started, the child-poverty rate had grown to affect more than 18 percent of American youngsters, with one million more children living in poverty in 2008 than in 2000. Experts project that more up-to-date census data will show child poverty climbing to above 20 percent.

The KidsCount 2010 Report follows-up on Casey’s April release of Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters, a KIDS COUNT Special Report documenting the conclusive evidence of a direct link between developing proficient reading skills by the third grade, and the likelihood that a child will fall into, or remain stuck in poverty throughout his or her life. The Casey Foundation is at the vanguard of a national movement within philanthropy to make reading by the end of third grade a national priority, and a growing number of family foundations are helping to lead the charge.

On a National Center Teleconference last fall, Miriam Shark, Associate Director at the Casey Foundation, described the difficult cycle that many families in poverty face when trying to ensure their children enter school ready to learn: “Kids do well when their families do well. Families do better when they live in communities that help them access all of the things that they need.”

Shark explained that with this in mind, “The Casey Foundation takes a two generation approach to strengthening families and reducing poverty. We think about this as a life cycle approach. We’re thinking at a community level about trying to interrupt the pipeline to poverty by addressing two populations or two generations simultaneously. We think it’s very important to pay attention to parents and their ability to earn a family-supporting wage, and their ability to move their family to stabilize their family’s finances and move their family ahead economically over time and to be a successful parent. But we don’t think that’s sufficient. We think that simultaneously we have to pay attention to what the community is providing to families in the way of helping them raise successful kids. So that includes children with the ability to succeed in school, having the role models, the experiences, the incentives, the opportunities to develop the skills and to develop the relationships and to develop the networks and the aspirations that will help them be successful in the mainstream economy.”

Early Warning makes the case that it is vital that communities across the country find more effective ways to ensure that all children receive adequate preparation for school. A summary of core findings from the report include:

  • Millions of American children reach fourth grade without learning to read proficiently. Of the fourth-graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test in 2009, 83% of children from low-income families failed to reach the “proficient” level in reading.
  • Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a crucial marker in a child’s educational development. Failure to read proficiently is linked to higher rates of school dropout, which suppresses earning potential as well as the nation’s competitiveness and general productivity.
  • Children must be ready to succeed when they get to school (cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically) before they can learn there. They need to be present at school because they can’t learn if they aren’t there. And they need to have high quality learning opportunities, beginning at birth and continuing in school and during out-of-school time, including summers, in order to sustain learning gains and not lose ground. For millions of American kids, these conditions are not met.
  • Getting more young children to read proficiently is possible. Much is known about how people learn to read, and successful, evidenced-based programs exist. However, policies and funding streams are too fragmented, and the application of key interventions too inconsistent to get widespread, positive results.

These findings and recommendations confirm and reinforce previous research on early childhood education, and resonate strongly with the goals and experiences of family funders active in this area. “Casey’s new report provides a thoughtful overview of the important research and key trends that are driving the need for a holistic and comprehensive approach to closing the achievement and opportunity gap for low-income young children,” says Amy Crawford, executive director of the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation, a co-founder of the Minnesota Early Childhood Funders Network.“The report’s Call to Action section emphasizes the urgent need for all of us – parents, funders, citizens and policymakers – to make the healthy development of children our top collective priority and work together under a ‘big tent’ coalition.”

“Early Warning’s message is right on target,” agrees Mari Beth Moulton, executive director of the Baltimore office for the Wright Family Foundation. “It is essential that every child learn the mechanics of reading by the end of the third grade. Linking literacy to earnings potential also puts into perspective the critical impact literacy plays in each individual’s life as well as how it impacts the community and world economy.”

The Early Warning report identifies four core recommendations for dramatically increasing the number of children, particularly from low-income families, who read proficiently by the end of third grade:

  1. Develop a coherent system of early care and education that aligns, integrates, and coordinates what happens from birth through third grade so children are ready to take on the learning tasks associated with fourth grade and beyond.
  2. Encourage and enable parents, families, and caregivers to play their indispensable roles as co-producers of good outcomes for their children.
  3. Prioritize, support, and invest in results-driven initiatives to transform low-performing schools into high-quality teaching and learning environments in which all children, including those from low-income families and high-poverty neighborhoods, are present, engaged, and educated to high standards.
  4. Develop and utilize solutions to two of the most significant contributors to the under-achievement of children from low-income families—chronic absence from school and summer learning loss.

Family foundations small and large have joined Casey in a growing national movement among funders to achieve universal reading proficiency by the year 2020. This special two-part series of Family Giving News features brief profiles of several family foundations leading the charge for change in this area.

The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation: School Readiness for Economic Stability

The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation in Minnesota, founded in 1944, has long been a leader in efforts to combat discrimination and honor diversity, self-sufficiency, health, education and programs for people with disabilities. More recently, the foundation has announced a new strategic grantmaking focus for 2011 to help people in poverty achieve economic stability, and an important part of their work in this area has been recognition of the connection between early learning and child development and systemic poverty.

Several years ago, Executive Director Amy Crawford helped found the Minnesota Early Childhood Funders Network (see below for details). On June 24th, the network hosted their Fourth Annual Nancy Latimer Convening on Children and Youth bringing together funders, providers, practitioners and elected officials around a critical issue that impacts young children and families. The convening featured a keynote address by Dr. Megan Gunnar, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. A recent Minnesota Council on Foundation’s Philanthropy Potluck column about the event illustrates just one of the many complexities facing those seeking solutions for universal school readiness:

Dr. Gunnar introduced the theory of “serve and return,” a continual process of the child “serving something out” and how, in a responsive environment, their “serve is returned.”

This high stakes game doesn’t happen on a tennis court. Instead, imagine a baby smiling and cooing at mom and then waiting for a smile or encouraging word to come back. If she doesn’t get a response, she tries less and less often, and ultimately her brain development slows. An unresponsive environment just doesn’t provide what a child needs.

Why the lack of response? Caregivers in low-income families are depressed or emotionally stressed 15 to 20 percent of the time, rendering them ineffective at the all important “serve and return.” Lack of access to affordable mental health care and other services exacerbates the problem.

Crawford says that The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation’s approach to early learning opportunities for young children relies on its engagement with other funders – and, increasingly, on more direct engagement at the public policy level.

“We have supported a variety of collaborations with other funders around various issues related to early care and education,” notes Crawford. “While we have funded nonprofits who often are partnering with the state or county on programs and initiatives, the philanthropic sector is learning to work with representatives of public agencies that impact the lives of young children—this is a new and emerging competency and skill area. Our work with the Minnesota Early Childhood Funders Network, hosted by the Minnesota Council on Foundations, is a great example of working with other funders around common goals and educating the field around critical issues.”

Crawford cites a long list of benefits that The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation has realized through its participation in the Minnesota Early Childhood Funders Network, including:

  • Commitment to shared goals
  • Willingness to share risks, rewards and credit for results
  • Openness to experiment with different approaches if something is not successful
  • Recognition that all contributions are appreciated by parties at the table
  • Realization that there are multiple ways to get things done
  • Foundations have tremendous influence with their “cash and cachet” to increase awareness and understanding of the critical community issues impacting young children and their families and to convene diverse stakeholders together across sectors
  • Ongoing communication is essential to keeping everyone in the loop
  • Take the long view—changing systems takes time, effort and consistent leadership

Crawford notes that the Network has identified several opportunities for high impact investments for funders, based on members’ respective work in this area:

  • Targeting resources to at-risk children and their families and connecting them to high quality early learning programs, health care and community services
  • Bridging research and practice utilizing evidence-based strategies.
  • Supporting professional development and training about early education and child development for providers and caregivers.
  • Investing in evaluation efforts so that programs can make continuous improvements.
  • Supporting transition programs between early childhood programs and kindergarten.

Crawford also agrees that age 3 is not early enough when thinking about school readiness: “Given what we know about early brain development, some of the greatest opportunities for private funders are to address the needs of vulnerable children ages 0-3 and to reduce or eliminate stressors that impede healthy development and ability to develop positive connections with others. Research shows that effective interventions at an early age can make a difference and produce positive outcomes in later life.”

She continues, “There’s a lot of attention being paid to starting at age 3 for school readiness, but it needs to start prenatally and at birth. More support is needed for parent education, high quality early education experiences, access to health care, home visiting, nutrition and safe and affordable housing. At the same time, we need to be helping parents build their knowledge and marketable skills to secure living wage jobs, housing and health care so that they can adequately take care of their families.”

Wright Family Foundation: Follow the Data

The Wright Family Foundation is committed to diverse educational initiatives that provide intervention, support and enrichment programs for at-risk children to realize their full potential. The foundation’s board and staff believe that opportunity is critical to success and that there should be equality of opportunity in education for every student.

Recently, the foundation’s board established a goal that all children in the regions served by the foundation (primarily Austin and Baltimore) will have access to programs that adequately prepare them for kindergarten. Strategies the foundation has used include expanding children’s access to quality instruction in early childhood education programs and initiatives; supporting pre-school reading readiness programs; and funding programs that support parents as first teachers and help them develop parenting skills.

Mari Beth Moulton, executive director of the foundation’s Baltimore office, says that while the foundation has always supported literacy programs as the fundamental element of education, “we recently decided to focus our giving on early childhood education and programs for students in K-5. We have moved in this direction because all the data points to the importance of ensuring that every child masters the skills that are fundamental for success.”

While the Wright Foundation has not formally collaborated with other funders to date, Moulton recommends that funders new to this area tap into existing knowledge and experience among foundations already active in early childhood education and reading readiness. “Start by reading publications such as the Casey report; consider joining a funders group. There are many individuals at foundations that are very knowledgeable about these issues and they can provide guidance and answer questions you may have.“

Moulton also emphasizes the important influence of private philanthropy outside of grantmaking dollars: “By being at the table on the local level and lending our support to the local school district we are validating the importance of early childhood education and reading by third grade. We also support programs that spread the message of early childhood education and recognizing parents as first teachers.We need to continue to reinforce this message at every opportunity. Keeping the focus on these issues publically will hopefully lead to increased funding from all levels of government as well as bring awareness to parents about the important role they play in preparing their children for school and academic success.”

Coming Next Month…

Family philanthropy is stepping up to meet the national challenge of ensuring that all children enter kindergarten ready to learn. Family funders across the country have joined with national leaders such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation to lead coalitions and collaborations of funders who share this goal. Next month we highlight the experiences and achievements of other family philanthropies working in this area, and provide overviews of existing philanthropic networks and resources for early childhood education.

Are you part of a family foundation, advised fund or giving circle interested in talking with one or more of the funders profiled in this article? Contact the National Center, and we’d be more than happy to help make the connection!

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