United Way tries to make the grade with literacy program: Education initiatives showing early success

Last summer, the United Way of Central Indiana decided it needed to go to school.

The not-for-profit concluded that to achieve its goal of building stronger communities, it needed to supplement its human-service initiatives with a comprehensive focus on early childhood development and elementary education.

“Our board decided we needed to elevate what we’re doing with schools and focus on root causes of why students don’t succeed,” said Ellen Annala, CEO of United Way.

“If we don’t invest now when they’re young, we have a higher investment later as a community,” she said.

A year later, United Way’s initial foray into education-its Ready to Learn, Ready to Earn initiative-is getting good marks. A particular bright spot is Read-UP, a reading-improvement program targeting fourth-graders. Many of the first batch of students tutored showed substantial progress.

Ready to Learn, Ready to Earn is spending $3.2 million in its first year on programs aimed at early childhood literacy, parent education, kindergarten readiness, tutoring, school health centers and more.

United Way initially is focusing on two neighborhoods it “adopted”: the near-east side and Martindale-Brightwood, which is northeast of downtown. It picked the areas, in part, because they’ve been plagued by poverty for decades. Nearly 87 percent of students in the neighborhoods qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The not-for-profit worked closely with the nine Indianapolis Public Schools elementaries in the areas, along with child-care centers, parents and community groups.

One of the more ambitious efforts is ReadUP. Under the program, an army of 550 volunteers tutored 250 fourth-graders for 30 minutes three times a week.

Fourth-grade literacy is key, Annala said. Students in first through third grades are learning to read. But beginning in the fourth grade, students must read to learn. If they can’t read at the fourth-grade level, their ability to learn is stifled, she said.

Data from the first year shows that 43 percent of students who started out reading half a level to 2-1/2 levels below fourth grade were reading at their grade level by the end of the school year. Twenty-six percent of non-ReadUP students showed similar progress.

“We’re very pleased with the results,” Annala said. “The data is very encouraging.”

United Way has earmarked another $3.2 million for Ready to Learn, Ready to Earn next year. That’s a big sum for such a narrowly focused effort. All the humanservice programs United Way funds collectively receive about $25 million a year.

United Way views the education efforts as just as high a priority as its humanservice mission, said John Neighbours, a partner with Baker & Daniels LLP who was chairman of United Way’s board when it formulated its education plan.

Education efforts will expand over time and receive additional funding. But programs likely will continue to focus in areas where children need the most help.

United Way already has rolled out a host of programs in the targeted neighborhoods. Its Born Learning initiative shows parents how to promote learning by turning everyday experiences into teachable moments.

An Early Readers Club provides books to children from birth to age 6. Another initiative, Kindergarten Readiness, teaches parents how to become their children’s first teachers, facilitates timely kindergarten enrollment and helps preschools improve their curriculums and facilities.

Four elementary schools now have a school nurse on site whose salary is paid by United Way. Four schools will be added next year.

The ReadUP program also is set to expand. Plans call for following the fourth-graders into fifth grade, where those still reading below grade level will continue to receive tutoring. A new crop of fourth-graders will start the program. The rotation will continue the following year with sixth-graders. ReadUP’s goal is to have all sixth-graders reading at grade level.

“Ultimately, the real test will be how these kids perform on the ISTEP,” said Jay Geshay, United Way’s senior vice president of community planning and strategic initiatives. But he said the early success bodes well for strong ISTEP scores.

IPS Superintendent Eugene White is equally encouraged.

“The test results were very, very positive and indicate our students can do it if we give them the proper support,” White said. “They’re especially encouraging because we focused on only a few schools. We have evidence and proof that it will make a difference.”

White agrees United Way’s strategy of providing intensive help to families and children early on is the right way to go.

“Most of the serious concerns we have in our community generate from the breakdown of our education for our citizens,” he said. “We all know that literacy or reading is a gateway to education. It will pay off in terms of the number of students who will get a better education, fewer drops-outs, higher graduation rates and high quality of life for our kids.”

The Ready to Learn, Ready to Earn initiative also helps create strong bonds between schools and the surrounding communities, Neighbours said. Research shows such connections help pave the way for students to successfully make the transition from elementary school to middle school and to high school graduation.

“What is the most unhealthy part of our community? I think everyone will agree it’s education,” he said. “We need a culture where it’s good to learn. It’s OK to learn.”

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