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124 Communities Take up the Campaign for Grade Level Reading Challenge

July 18, 2012

By Susan Hildreth
Director, IMLS

We know that more than 80 percent of children in poverty are not reading at grade level by the third grade, and many other children are falling behind as well; libraries and museums are taking up the challenge to improve learning outcomes for young children.

At the end of June, IMLS Director for Strategic Partnerships Marsha Semmel and National Board Member Julia Bland participated in a landmark event in Denver,  the National Civic League’s All-America City Awards. For the first time in their 63-year history, these honors, in conjunction with the Annie E. Casey Foundation-led Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, focused on a single theme:  addressing the need for more effective school readiness, combatting summer learning loss, and reversing chronic absenteeism, even among our youngest learners.

Current statistics are sobering. Despite major public and private investments over the past decades—and compelling research that failure to address early learning gaps has significant economic, social, and cultural costs--more than 80 percent of children in poverty are not reading at grade level by the third grade, and many other children are falling behind as well. The Campaign, with more than 100 private partners, including United Way Worldwide, is aligning its whole-community approach with other federal, state, and local efforts and is linking schools, out-of-school entities, parents, and caregivers in the hopes of moving the needle with measurable results by 2015.

Hence, all 124 applicants for the 2012 All-America City Award formed community-based teams and developed Community Service Action Plans (CSAP) to show how each locality would work together to address its early learning challenges.

More than 100 of the CSAPs featured libraries as key partners and more than 37 of them featured museums.

The meeting began with a pre-conference for funders and partners, which provided opportunities for foundations, NGO’s, federal agencies, service organizations, elected officials, and researchers to discuss strategies for effective collaboration.  Then some 500-plus enthusiastic, committed, and energetic representatives from the applicant communities joined the group for plenaries, small group sessions, and other networking opportunities. Each of the 34 finalist communities had the opportunity to make a three-minute pitch for its city’s early learning efforts, and the grand finale announcement of the 14 All-America City winners was electric with anticipation and excitement. It was exciting to see several of the winning communities, like Baltimore; Southern Pines, NC; Roanoke, VA; Marshalltown, IA; and Seattle/South King County, WA; and Louisville, KY touting their libraries or museums as central to their plans.

As Ralph Smith, Managing Director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Senior Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “It’s time [for all of the applicant and winning communities] to pivot from planning to performance.” Among his admonishments:

  • We need to create viable and inclusive plans that reflect the reality of parents’ and children’s lives.
  • We can’t create new silos.
  • We need to demonstrate the capacity to execute, based on effective use of data and without significant infusion of new funds.
  • We need to be “clear-eyed and hard-edged” about what we replicate, moving beyond “boutique programs” to scaling up those evidence-based efforts that have been shown to work.

IMLS, like the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, has taken up the early learning challenge. Our 2012 museum/library collaboration grants invited libraries and museums to join forces with other community organizations to effect positive change in early learning. We will continue this focus in FY 2013. I know that our libraries and museums have played an important role in the early learning environments of their communities. It’s not too late to get involved.