In February 2014, The Belk Foundation convened nearly two dozen representatives from a number of local foundations, businesses, the school district and the library to discuss a community crisis: according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress only 40% of Charlotte’s third graders were reading on grade level.
National research indicated third-grade reading was a strong indicator of both high school graduation and college matriculation. Although Charlotte-Mecklenburg was better than the average for large public cities (26%) and the national average (34%), this wasn’t good enough for these leaders.
This initial conversation led to a commitment by this group to organize a Third Grade Reading Task Force, which met throughout 2014 to review key research, build on past community efforts and to define the goal, scope and pillars of a potential community-wide collective impact effort around early childhood literacy.
Based on the input received from local and national experts, and feedback from community focus groups, the Task Force decided to move forward with a bold goal to double third grade reading outcomes over the next decade. What started as a community conversation began to take shape as a community initiative. The Foundation For The Carolinas agreed to serve as the fiscal agent. The College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte offered to provide a graduate research assistant. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library offered to provide office space. An early coalition of funders began to commit $5 million to cover the first five years of the initiative.
In early 2015, the Task Force reorganized as the governing board of the newly named Read Charlotte. A national search for an executive director was launched with support from Raleigh-based Elinvar. In February 2015—one year after The Belk Foundation convened the first meeting—Read Charlotte publicly launched with support from local business, nonprofit, education, philanthropic, and civic leaders.
After a national search, Read Charlotte hired Munro Richardson to lead the initiative. Starting full-time in late April 2015, Richardson spent much of the summer on a listening tour, meeting with nonprofit, business, and civic leaders to learn more about Charlotte-Mecklenburg. He also gave hundreds of presentations (in his first two years) about the importance of early literacy across the community.
Richardson recruited and hired a team to focus on special areas of work, which had grown to a total of 6 people (including Richardson) by 2018.
Starting in February 2015, over 300 local citizens signed up to indicate their interest in participating on one of four working groups aligned with Read Charlotte’s four pillars. In October and November, 38 local citizens were selected to represent a broad swath of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community to participate on the Working Groups.
These groups worked intensively between January and September 2016 to develop a ten-year strategic plan and set of community indicators to track progress. They accomplished these specific goals:
Determined the community indicators Read Charlotte uses to measure and track progress towards achieving the 80% goal.
Identified specific strategies with the greatest potential to improve third grade reading outcomes.
Made recommendations for the Strategic Action Framework.
The Governing Board makes final decisions regarding Read Charlotte’s strategies and investments.
In January 2016, Read Charlotte hosted the first of three systems change workshops. By “system” we mean the set of interacting and interdependent component parts (families, child care programs, schools, public agencies, nonprofits, etc.) that collectively affect how children develop as readers from birth through third grade. We needed to understand how this system works and develop a set of strategies to improve how its parts work together to raise third grade reading proficiency for children. At the first workshop, 111 participants were introduced to “systems thinking.”
Following the January workshop, we surveyed over 3,000 families, educators, students, providers and funders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. This was accomplished in six weeks with the assistance of over three-dozen nonprofit agencies across the community. The United Way of Central Carolinas hosted 32 community conversations with families, educators and students. This information was used to create a “system scan” for the community. Participants learned root cause analysis to evaluate the system scan data and identify underlying causes of system outcomes.
The third and final systems change workshop took place in November 2016.
After two years of research and alignment, Read Charlotte began to move into implementation in collaboration with an army of dedicated groups and individuals across Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Through four main focus areas (research and data, improving systems, strategic funding, and building networks) Read Charlotte is confident that more children can succeed.