Northwest Business Magazine

Transform Rockford: A Collective Approach to Teaching Literacy

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There’s general agreement that improving youngsters’ reading skills can impact our region’s transformation. But what does it take to get started? The collective input of multiple players, for starters.

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Ask this region’s education experts, and you’ll hear a grim statistic about our youngsters: according to the state board of education, 83 percent of third-graders in Rockford Public Schools read below state standards. Nationally, about 32 percent of third-graders read below grade level.

The problem isn’t just a reflection of student skills. It’s also a key milestone in a child’s development. Third graders who can’t read at grade level face an uphill climb for years to come.

“From birth to grade 3, we learn to read,” says Pam Clark Reidenbach, executive director of Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence (NICNE), in Rockford. “From third grade on, we read to learn. So, if we haven’t learned to read, we struggle to learn.”

At a summit held last October with area leaders in government, business and nonprofit, conversation quickly coalesced around the impact reading standards can have on the broader transformation of the Rockford region.

The summit was convened by NICNE and Transform Rockford, a nonprofit organization dedicated to a strategic plan for the region’s self-improvement. As it identifies ways to continue aligning resources around positive change, the group wanted to know where was the most energy and urgency. It soon became obvious that other issues – workforce development, poverty, crime – stood to be impacted by literacy. And it would take much more than the public schools to see true transformation.

“We tend to think that, for our kids to learn, they have to be in the classroom,” says Anisha Grimmett, executive director of Alignment Rockford, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strategic improvements in public schools. “But we know that the support systems also have to be in place to enable a child to be ready to learn and foster a culture of reading. Children have a lot of factors that can keep them from learning. We want to have a better understanding why Jimmy can’t focus in class. It could be things at home that happened right before he came to class, or the night before.”

Rockford Public Schools already had volunteer reading tutors, and it was reframing its approach to reading instruction. So how, then, could other stakeholders help to move the needle?

The answer laid in strategies already being deployed through Transform Rockford. Reidenbach is one of several area leaders trained in a process called “collective impact.” This approach to community improvement focuses on five key steps: identifying a common agenda, establishing measurements, aligning resources and programming around a goal, communicating among partners and naming a backbone organization to facilitate the movement.

In the case of third-grade reading, there was common agreement on the agenda and the preliminary measurement. And there were initiatives in place that could address underlying issues.

Alignment Rockford, which was tapped as the “backbone” for third-grade reading, has been piloting an initiative, through its Healthy Start team, aimed at kindergarten readiness and parent-child interactions among children under age 5. Through the pilot, public housing residents at The Grove at Keith Creek are learning to stimulate brain growth in their little ones. Local groups including the YMCA, Discovery Center and Barnes & Noble are lending support. The program is being extended to the Fairgrounds housing complex this fall.

At the same time, Alignment has supported a “community case management” initiative aimed at helping families that rely upon charitable and federal supports. “Referring families to the right agency was highly complicated, just for case managers,” explains Grimmett. “If it’s hard for them, imagine the person who’s in need and doesn’t know where to go.”

Adds Reidenbach: “The biggest problem is that people can fall through the cracks during the referral process.”

Now, case managers can refer families to a single point of entry – a single agency that makes referrals in a given area such as housing, transportation, child care and food. Contact cards are now available around the region, and efforts are underway to make them available digitally, too.

The third-grade reading initiative is still in its early phases. Grimmett says she’s assembling an advisory board that will include community leaders as well as parents and students, especially those from low-income households. By January, Grimmett hopes to have a defined plan.

Meanwhile, she’s encouraging any discussion that builds a “culture of reading,” including this summer’s Read 815 campaign. She’s also finding opportunities to align organizations like Literacy Council and Goodwill, which both serve the parents whose role is so critical.

Reidenbach is encouraged by the work of other communities who’ve attacked third-grade reading. In Erie, Pa., students reading at grade level jumped from a paltry 34 percent to 75 percent – in three years.

“We know there are no quick fixes,” she says. “The problems occurred over decades and the solution is going to take time, too, but we’re going to continue to move the needle on third-grade reading and other significant social issues in our community.”

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