Collaboration seen as key to improving youth literacy

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This article was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — At age three, Travis Mitchell got a first-hand lesson in the value of literacy.

Growing up in southeast Raleigh, he says, he spent many afternoons with his grandmother while his mother, a teacher, worked to earn credentials so she could get a counseling job in the Wake County public schools.

Although his grandmother had not gone to college, she “created an environment of learning,” he says. “There were books around I was required to use. There were conversations I was required to know something and share something about.”

Enriching kids with a culture of reading before they start school is critical to prepare them to succeed in school, in the workplace and in life, according to Mitchell and two other education leaders who spoke on October 9 to the Triangle Donors Forum.

The Donors Forum, hosted by Triangle Community Foundation and held at the offices of Research Triangle Park Foundation, spotlighted youth literacy, which is a focus of Triangle Community Foundation’s “People and Places” initiative to invest in pressing community needs in the region.

The challenge

Bob Saffold, who moderated the session and is vice president of the Smarter Learning Group, a national education consulting firm, said two-thirds of third graders in the U.S. do not read proficiently, a share that rises to 80 percent among third graders who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school.

In North Carolina, he said, 66 percent of fourth graders do not read proficiently, a share that rises to 78 percent among those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

According to newly released state data, one in eight of last year’s third graders throughout the state either were retained in third grade this year or are in a special program to transition to fourth grade, Saffold said.

In the Triangle, the share of last year’s third graders who were retained or are in special transition programs this year total 18 percent in Durham County, 13 percent in Orange County, 10 percent in Wake County, and 6.5 percent each in Johnston County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, he said.

Yet despite huge gaps in reading levels between low-income children and those in middle-income and more affluent families, and between what those two groups of children achieve in life, Saffold said, “it’s within our capacity to make a difference.”

Starting early

Communities in Schools of Wake County in recent years has expanded its focus to children before they start school.

“We were beginning programs in kindergarten,” Mitchell says. “We were missing something. Students were already behind.”

To bridge the gap between students who were falling behind and those who were entering kindergarten prepared to read, Communities in Schools launched programs aimed at “preventing students getting behind in the first place,” he says.

In partnership with the federally-funded Head Start pre-school program and with Meredith College, for example, Communities in Schools retrofitted the SAS Learning Center in the Kentwood community to take a “holistic approach to invest in an earlier portion of the pipeline” of students headed for kindergarten, Mitchell says.

Long-term studies have found that students who participate in pre-school programs are more likely to graduate, be employed, earn a significantly higher median annual income, own a home, have a savings account and be arrested less often, he says.

“If we’re going to change the trajectory of children, we have to start early,” said Mitchell, who joined Communities in Schools as president four years ago after a career in broadcast journalism.

Teaching, tutoring, professional development

The Hill Center in Durham takes a three-pronged approach to youth literacy, Denise Morton, director of outreach at The Hill Center and former chief academic officer for the Orange County Schools who has a doctorate in education leadership, told the Donors Forum.

With one teacher for every four students, it operates a private school that provides three hours of instruction a day in reading, math and written language to 170 children from 77 other schools in the Triangle.

It provides tutoring after-school and in the summer for students from public schools in Wake, Durham and Orange counties and from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.

And it provides professional development for teachers who want to learn its specialized technique, known as the Hill Reading Achievement Program, for reading intervention.

Over the last six years, the Hill Center has served over 12,000 educators, including 125 teachers from 13 school districts in the state who are putting those techniques into practice for the first time this year.

And the Hill Reading Achievement Program has been replicated in Geneva, El Salvador, and Colorado Springs.

The Hill Center “wants to spread understanding and services to help children learn to read and read well,” Morton said.

Collaborating on early literacy

Improving the way young children and students learn to read requires careful collaboration among public schools, nonprofits and funding organizations, the experts at the Donors Forum said.

And effective collaboration, they said, requires changing the thinking about reading programs; securing funding over multiple years from multiple funders; and collecting and sharing data to measure the impact of early-intervention reading programs.

Schools and school districts “often have real difficulty engaging with community partners” and “sometimes have a real tin ear on collaboration and public relations,” said Saffold, a former teacher and school administrator whose father also an educator.

Mitchell said “political gridlock and partisan debates” often can stifle innovation. “The environment is very risk-averse,” both at the district level and often at the school level, he said.

So collaborating with schools requires that nonprofits “change our own mindset.”

The best way to engage a school system, Mitchell said, “is to come in willing to listen to possible gaps and how to help, and bring in resources to make it easy for the principal or superintendent to engage.”

And to be effective, he said, partnerships require taking risks and working hard.

“Collaboration is messy,” he said. “Nobody wants to talk about what happens when collaboration doesn’t work. You need a willingness to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t meet your goals, retool, don’t stop.”

Adding value

Morton, who was a special education teacher for 14 years, mainly in Alamance County, said efforts to partner on youth literacy programs with public schools should begin with identifying what the schools need and want and then finding ways to work with the schools to address those needs.

Understanding the larger context of policy and funding discussions and decisions at the state legislature is key to avoid being “left in a silo,” she said, as is understanding “what you’re walking into in a school district. Every one is different.”

It also is important in approaching a school system “to know the right person to get to at the central office,” she said, “There are layers of people. You have to know who has the power or you spin wheels.”

Data essential

Equally essential is agreeing in the partnership contract with schools to gather and share data on the progress students are making.

Saffold that “one of the key barriers to effective collaboration with school systems is around the systems’ reluctance to share data needed to track progress and identify gaps in programs to tweak programs,” he said.

Morton agreed.

“It’s real important we have data,” she said. “People won’t pay attention unless there’s a proven track record.”

Mitchell said data not only are essential for funders and partners but also can make a big difference among the staff of the agencies partnering with the schools.

“If you can begin to explain to staff how effective they’re being with the use of their time,” by the end of the year they “can see how they really changed the game for their students,” he said. “Our theory of change is that programs don’t change people, relationships do.”

So having data that measure the progress of a collaborative effort has helped “increase morale and momentum for the organization internally,” he said.

Going to scale

Fostering a culture of collaboration is essential to the success of youth literacy programs, the experts told the Donors Forum.

“We make every effort to connect with as many organizations as possible with a similar focus,” Morton said.

Mitchell said funders want to know in advance what the “return on investment” will be and are looking for metrics that will gauge the “collective community impact” of their funding.

They also want to invest in partnerships that can be expanded and already have the “administrative capacity” to expand, Mitchell said.

Taking such programs “to scale,” he said, requires funding from three to five funders over multiple years.

Morton said the least successful initiatives are those that involve funding for one year only, known as “one and done.”

Collaboration essential

Schools and school districts cannot on their own improve student performance in reading, Saffold said.

“We need to craft and implement a set of community solutions to improve literacy,” he said. “There’s a major role for nonprofits and foundations to get involved to move the needle on literacy.”

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Nonprofits take on capacity challenges

By Todd Cohen

[Note: I am working with Triangle Community Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

Housing for New Hope in Durham and Communities in Schools of Wake County both found a better way to collect data to help show funders their impact.

Camp High Hopes at YMCA of the Triangle found a more personal way to tell the story of its impact on kids.

And Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network found untapped support among its supporters to contribute some of the funds it needed.

Those lessons were among many that the four groups and other nonprofits learned through a program Triangle Community Foundation launched this year to help strengthen nonprofits that focus on youth literacy and community development.

The Foundation selected 22 organizations to participate in the first phase of the effort, awarding 20 of them about $2,500 each to conduct an assessment of their organizational capacity and inviting two representatives of each organization to participate in a “learning cohort.”

Of the two representatives from each nonprofit, one played a leadership role at the organization, and the other was involved either in youth literacy or community development.

“Funding and resources for capacity building are always the top struggle we hear about from nonprofits in our community,” says Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation.

“We are attempting to fill this gap that many of these organizations see in their ability to build their capacity and strengthen their mission,” she says. “Having stronger nonprofits means they will be able to have a larger, collective impact on the issues they are working on in these areas.”

Capacity workshops

Participants in the learning cohort attended three workshops on topics that included how to work with consultants; data collection, evaluation and “logic modeling;” and how to tell a nonprofit’s story.

Nonprofits face a broad range of needs involving their organizational “capacity,” and they have a broad range of awareness about those needs, says Micah Gilmer, senior partner at Frontline Solutions, a consulting firm that designed and facilitated the workshops for Triangle Community Foundation.

Participants also shared with one another how they identify their organizational needs, and attended Triangle Community Foundation’s “What Matters” community luncheon in Raleigh on April 2, as well as a special session just for them with Leslie Crutchfield, the keynote speaker at the conference, who talked about the role of innovation and “collective impact” in making a difference on pressing community issues.

Story-telling

Communicating more effectively is a key need among all nonprofits, Gilmer says.

“One thing all of us can do better is being able to tell our story, and being able to talk in real terms about the people we’re touching, the lives we’re changing, and the way our work is connected to the broader challenges our state and our region face,” he says.

A big part of telling that story, he says, is to use data in a way to shows “you understand what the challenges are but also have real innovative solutions that can turn things around.”

Participants in the workshops agreed.

Karen Barlow, development specialist at YMCA of the Triangle, says that in preparing grant applications to support Camp High Hopes, a summer program for at-risk kids, she had used data to show the number of children who can or cannot read at grade level.

What she learned at the workshop on storytelling, she says, was that “you need to tell the story of the kid as much as you can because people are going to identify with him or her.”

At the workshop, led by writer Scott Huler, she says, she also learned that a good story also needs “a main character, a conflict, a climax and a resolution.”

So, instead of simply citing the percentage of elementary school students who are reading below grade level, for example,  her funding requests now might begin by saying that “Louis can barely read,” and then explain how Camp High Hopes addresses that need, and the difference it makes for Louis, she says.

What she learned, she says, was “how to bring your story to life as much as you can,” and how to “write a stronger narrative, or an application with a story,” and “illustrate your program better with a person rather than facts and figures.”

Data collection

Melissa Hartzell, development director at Housing for New Hope, a Durham nonprofit that provides access to integrated services, health care and housing for people who are homeless, was looking for a way to better collect data on its impact so it could give funders a better picture of the difference it was making.

During a conversation at one of the workshops, she says, she mentioned that her agency lacked that data to show the improvement in school among homeless children with access to stable housing.

Based on a suggestion from another workshop participant, Housing for New Hope now is working with the families it serves and the schools their children attend to obtain their test scores.

It will use that information to better tell its story to donors, Hartzell says.

Roberta Hadley, director of strategic initiatives at Communities in Schools of Wake County, says the agency also has been looking for a better way to collect data that show its impact on students it serves.

One of its community learning centers, for example, serves 60 to 65 students after school. While the students all live in the same community, they attend up to 25 different schools, making it a challenge to track data on their performance in school.

Partly as a result of the workshop session on data, Communities in Schools has centralized its data collection and now is working with staff at the central office for the Wake County Public School System to collect data, rather than having staff members at individual learning centers try to gather that data from multiple schools.

Data evaluation

Catherine Pleil, executive director of the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network, or DIHN, says her agency is moving to a new model for delivering its services, and needed to make better sense of its data on donors and potential donors.

The agency, which has provided emergency shelter for homeless families by rotating where they stay among over 30 congregations, now aims to provide families with stationary housing.

To raise the money to do that, DIHN used its capacity-assessment grant from Triangle Community Foundation to hire consultants Moss+Ross to analyze its database of supporters.

The analysis found that, while the agency has a large database of supporters, many of them may not be contributing as much financial support as they can, reflecting untapped capacity for DIHN to raise the funds it needs to support its new strategy.

Capacity challenges

Gilmer says cuts in government funding for social services has created new capacity issues for nonprofits already facing big capacity challenges.

Not only do nonprofits face often complicated reporting requirements tied to the government funds they continue to receive, he says, but they also need to find ways to diversify their funding base as government support shrinks.

The key is to “communicate why and how they’re doing what they’re doing,” he says. “As folks encounter bureaucracy, don’t lose sight of the human element of what they’re doing. Tapping into new funding sources means in many cases learning a new language to talk about your work that conveys the value for the funders.”

In the face of government funding cuts, he says, it is important “to have a funding community that’s really well informed about the challenges that nonprofits face, and that is responsive to their needs.”

What’s next

Now that the cohort has wrapped up, many of the organizations have applied for phase two funding from the Foundation. That funding will focus on helping to put into effect strategies to improve organizational effectiveness that were identified during the assessment phase. Grantees for phase two will be announced in late summer.

“We are really excited to be working intentionally and strategically in this space, to bring together effective organizations to learn from each other, and to build their capacity as well as their drive to collaborate,” says Libby Richards, senior community programs officer for the Foundation.

“We will use the feedback garnered from this first learning cohort,” she says, “to shape the coming year’s program and look forward to seeing the impact that this investment will have on the nonprofit participants and the community.”