Why Reading Works matters for Detroit children

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    Reading Works is an organization dedicated to raising the level of adult literacy in metropolitan Detroit and promoting the idea that reading does indeed work, in the family and in the workplace. The Depth of the Problem Metro Detroit has suffered exceptional job loss as manufacturing decreased in the last decade and the number of jobs available to unskilled and uneducated labor has declined dramatically. The emerging economy is technology-driven, with demand for employees who read and write well and have computer skills, English fluency and a positive work ethic.

    Yet according to the National Institute for Literacy, “Forty-seven percent of adults in the city of Detroit are functionally illiterate, with staggering rates recorded in some of the suburbs as well: Southfield at 24 percent and both Inkster and Pontiac at 34 percent.” These adults are not acceptable employees in the new economic arena and not able to nurture a family learning environment for the region’s children, many of whom show severe deficiencies in reading and math.

    A study by the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce clearly shows a dearth in adult literacy services overall, especially for learners at the lowest levels.

    Public and private funding for adult literacy and job training agencies is inadequate, inconsistent and unpredictable. Further reductions in public funding for adult literacy programs are anticipated, adding to the burden of service providers who are constantly scrounging for funding, have long waiting lists and are unable to meet the needs of adult learners.

    And while increasingly robust efforts are being made on behalf of early childhood preparedness, more rigorous school curriculum, high school graduation rates and remedial help as needed in higher education, there is no cohesive, consistent effort on behalf of illiterate adults.

    Reading Works will supply that missing piece.

    Reading Works’ Collaborative Model Reading Works has set this goal: 80 by ’20.

    By the year 2020, at least 80 per cent of adults in metro Detroit – Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties – will read at a ninth-grade level or above.

    The Reading Works Alliance(RWA) — the growing number of community partners who support Reading Works — has created a comprehensive model to distribute consistent funding and services to selected, qualified adult literacy providers.

    Reading Works goes beyond a supply-drive program that simply distributes funding. The model is demand-driven by motivated learners who see the benefits of significantly improving their literacy skills. And Reading Works’ media partners will campaign to support adult literacy with the public – and public policy-makers.

    Reading Works will: • Fund literacy providers that can increase their capacities and show outcomes. Agencies funded by Reading Works will increase the number of adult learners they serve, improve retention rates and provide personal guidance to learners as they advance to higher levels. Measured outcomes will include the number of adult learners who enter programs, how many remain engaged to reach higher reading levels, and how many progress to job-readiness training, vocational training, GED-prep level and secondary education.

    • Link literacy providers and other social services. This will remove barriers that prevent many learners from staying engaged and moving forward to employment that can sustain a family. Many learners need help with transportation, child care, health care, vision screening and eyeglasses. These services are currently provided inconsistently and in isolation. In the Reading Works model, funding will be allocated and partnerships formed to make these services available. • Establish a network among literacy providers to share best practices. This will be done with newsletters, conferences, Web site updates and inter-agency communication facilitated by Reading Works.

    • Help providers strengthen the connection between learners and skilled work. Reading Works will work with businesses and civic organizations to offer mentoring, job shadowing and apprenticeships as appropriate to the level of skill of the adult learner.

    • Provide a mass media campaign to raise public awareness. The RWA will use its high-profile media members to great effect and will encourage community leaders in business, sports, entertainment, media, and the non-profit sector to participate in the social marketing of Reading Works. The public campaign will begin with a splash – and will be ongoing.

    The Reading Works Alliance was created by community leaders and organizations who agreed to work together. Those involved come from major media (including the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Media Partnership, WXYZ Channel 7 and the Michigan Chronicle), non-profits, private businesses and educational institutions. And more leaders are coming aboard.

    The RWA created its board of directors to steer strategic plans, raise funds, engage technical advisors and award and monitor grants to agencies that meet criteria including skill, record of success and ability to find partnerships and provide incentives for learners to remain engaged in literacy training. The RWA and its advisors conducted rigorous site evaluations of grantees’ capacity, facilities, curriculum, instructional materials and financial documentation.

    The demand-driven strategy is a product of more than a year of research, planning and assessment of community assets by the RWA. It has benefited from the counsel and expertise of major community support organizations, such as United Way for Southeast Michigan, Michigan Works, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund. The RWA researched the work of the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy in New York, consulted with Pro Literacy America and engaged Detroit native James Wile, Ph.D., an international literacy consultant based in Washington, D.C. Funding Goals: Short-Term Urgency, Plus Sustainability Reading Works will ensure that motivated adults in metro Detroit have access to high-quality service providers, conveniently situated, at minimal or no personal expense. To accomplish that, significant new and consistent funding is urgently required. Reading Works will begin funding selected agencies by January 2012 and expand the program in future years.

    The RWA recognizes two major challenges to sustainability: long-term funding and management of the program. Funds, volunteers and other resources will be provided via partnerships with philanthropists, foundations, civic organizations and the business community. The RWA will raise $10 million by 2016 to provide stable funding to literacy providers, scale up the program and build an endowment so Reading Works can be a lasting community resource.

    The RWA board will act as fiduciary to disburse financial resources and monitor service providers through an executive director position, plus advisors, consultants and volunteer help. The RWA will publish reports and audits on the Reading Works Web site as well as through other media. Accountability and transparency will be priorities. Establishing Detroit as the National Leader In its extensive research, the RWA did not find another initiative with a similar approach anywhere in the country — or anything on the scale of Reading Works. Detroit is well-positioned to be the national leader in addressing the challenges of adult literacy.

    Any materials, best practices, case studies and action research, plus qualitative and quantitative empirical research generated through Reading Works will be accessible to the public as shared intellectual property. The RWA has established ties to institutions of higher education, notably including Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

    WSU will establish an Office of Adult Literacy, which will be housed on the Wayne State campus. The Office of Adult Literacy will be the hub of a partnership between Reading Works and the univ
    ersity. It will be managed by a WSU adult literacy specialist. The office will develop research opportunities that address adult literacy and related issues, organize local and regional conferences and forums, offer service and service-learning opportunities for students, create a data repository for the academic study of literacy best practices, and build a library of materials and resources for use by service providers and community partners. From this office, the university will take the lead in organizing a national symposium on adult literacy to be held in September 2013. This event will attract interested parties, educators and literacy professionals from the nation and the world, coming together in common cause to identify issues, solutions and best practices.

    The Reading Works executive director will partner with the Wayne State Office of Adult Literacy and manage the Reading Works initiative. The director will assist and assess local literacy providers, help agencies link to social services, coordinate fundraising and publish regular data-driven reports.

    Measuring Success: It’s Not Just About Numbers

    Reading Works’ most important outcomes will be evident in compelling personal success stories as adults learn, gain confidence and contribute to the community. Detroit Free Press Columnist Rochelle Riley has been writing about adult literacy for a decade. She once shared the story of a woman who dropped out after being called “lazy and stupid” by a high-school teacher. “The class laughed,” the woman said. “I cried.” At age 33, after her daughter was born, she entered the Mercy Education Project, one of the literacy providers affiliated with Reading Works. She wanted her daughter to see her as “a positive woman in her life … and a woman of education.”

    After her learning disabilities were diagnosed, she made progress, earned her GED, and then enrolled in higher education.

    Reading Works will generate many more inspirational stories. It will reflect the great spirit of metro Detroit, its commitment to urban renaissance, and the grit and determination of its people.

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