United Way seeks corporate help to promote reading: Fourth-grade program tries to attract 500 volunteers

August 27, 2007

Wanted: Corporate types willing to give an hour of time a week to a cause that is as critical as any business decision ever made. Must be willing to work with children. If interested, contact the United Way of Central Indiana.

Intrigued? Then you might be a candidate for the ReadUP program, which aims to help fourth-graders within the Indianapolis Public Schools system become better readers.

The ultimate goal is to produce more high school graduates for a district in which just about half the students earn a diploma. Causes for dropping out can be traced as far back as elementary school, said Ellen Annala, CEO of the United Way.

"In first through third grade, kids are learning to read, but at fourth grade they start reading to learn," she said. "If they haven't got to that point of comprehension, they're behind and very often don't catch up."

The United Way is partnering with the Central Indiana Corporate Volunteer Council, a group of businesses working together to promote volunteerism, to recruit mentors.

Citizens Gas CEO Carey Lykins and Eli Lilly and Co. Foundation President Rob Smith are among those giving their time.

Lykins became involved through the Central Indiana CVC and is hoping at least 50 of his colleagues at Citizens Gas will contribute to the cause as well.

"If people see that this means so much to me," he said, "it sets an example that I hope others will follow."

Eli Lilly, meanwhile, has a historical bond with the United Way that includes $9.8 million in employee contributions to the agency last year. As a supporter of its annual Day of Caring, the pharmaceutical giant views ReadUP as a natural extension of its existing commitments, Smith said.

Further, Lilly lately has been focusing more on private-public partnerships to help solve problems in the community that are relevant to its long-term business interests.

"When you look at things like the high school dropout rate, that affects us all," Smith said. "Over the long run, it would affect our ability to grow as vibrantly as we have in the past."

The aim of the project is to enlist 500 people throughout the school year to tutor two students every week for a half-hour each. Enough volunteers, however, will enable each child to participate in three weekly sessions totaling 90 minutes. IPS reading specialists have developed exercises volunteers can use as guidelines. Preand post-testing, as well as other data, will be used to measure progress.

Recruiting has begun, with training to follow in September. Sessions will start in October after ISTEP testing concludes. Organizers recommend volunteers seek a stand-in willing to substitute when they can't participate.

The program identified 15 schools, mostly in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood and east of downtown, where kids need the most help reading. It is estimated that roughly 30 percent of those students are unable to read at grade level, Annala said.

IPS supports some mentoring programs, but none are as large as this effort, Superintendent Eugene White said.

"We always tell our teachers that children don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," he said. "These people who are taking time off of their jobs will demonstrate that they care."

ReadUP stems from a pilot program United Way launched last year involving just a few schools. The agency became more serious, though, after directors restated its mission to focus not only on human services but children as well. The result is the Ready to Learn, Ready to Earn campaign that includes initiatives such as Bridges to Success and Success By 6.

The United Way is already active in the Martindale-Brightwood area through the Ready Communities program, a partnership with The Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore that helps youngsters prepare for school. Moreover, the neighborhood is part of the city's Great Indy Neighborhoods Initiatives, founded in 2004 and a partnership between the city, the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center and the Local Initiatives Support Corp.

ReadUP complements GINI by introducing an educational element to the existing layer of support, Annala said.

"We want kids in the community to start achieving at a higher level," she said. "The ultimate goal is to have kids graduating. That's the overall, long-range priority."

The Central Indiana CVC has produced marketing materials in print and video format that executives can distribute to colleagues. Besides the corporate community, the United Way also is targeting universities and religious groups to lend a hand.
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