Through our work with our partners, we’re focused on creating impact at four levels: system, program, school, and district.
Systems changes involve new or improved programs, policies, or practices. In order to create new and better student outcomes, we have to first change the system that was producing the old outcomes. Improved student outcomes follow positive system changes.
In 2016, we partnered with Promising Pages to bring the Books on Break model developed by Book Harvest in Durham, N.C. to Mecklenburg County. Books on Break provides free pop-up book fairs at targeted CMS elementary schools before summer breaks. Pre-K to fifth grade students get the opportunity to select five books and a drawstring bag to keep and take home. The majority of these books come from children who have simply outgrown them, making Books on Break the largest book donation project in the Charlotte region. Books on Break is now one of Promising Pages’ core programs that it operates each year. Through spring 2022, Promising Pages has held a total of 90 book fairs through which it distributed 266,426 books to 44,516 CMS students.
Abundant research since the 1980s pointed to dialogic reading – the practice of talking with children about words, language, and ideas during shared reading – as a highly effective practice for building vocabulary and oral comprehension skills. But no one had programmatized this for families. In 2016 and 2017, we partnered with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to develop Active Reading, training teaching adults the ABCs of Active Reading: Ask questions, Build vocabulary and Connect text to children’s worlds. More than 6,700 adults have been trained in Active Reading through Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, and this program and strategy has spread to other communities in North Carolina and as far away as Philadelphia.
In 2016, we came across encouraging research about a new text messaging service called Ready4K, which provides helpful nudges to parents of young children about easy things they can do at home to help their children’s early development. In 2017, we brought Ready4K to Mecklenburg County and experimented with a variety of outreach strategies with local partners. In 2021, we partnered with Smart Start of Mecklenburg County, which now directly manages Ready4K in our community.
In 2017, we partnered with Reach Out and Read Carolinas to co-develop a business plan to scale up this proven, evidence-based program, in which medical providers encourage families to read books and build children’s language through well child visits. A partnership with Atrium Health and Novant Health scaled up this program from serving 29% of children 0-5 in low-income households in 2017 to 70% in 2020. Thirteen of 15 well child visits occur in the first 36 months. The ripple effect of this improvement will begin to be felt for children entering CMS around 2024.
Read Charlotte learned about the Summer Literacy Infusion program from our sister organization, Readby4th, during a visit to Philadelphia in late 2016. The Philadelphia Out of School Time Initiative (POSTLI) developed the Summer Literacy Infusion model to add one hour of literacy to traditional summer camps four days a week. The model requires a minimum of four weeks. We believed this program model offered a low-cost, high-impact opportunity to enhance the summer learning ecosystem in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. We partnered with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, which agreed to pilot the program at two of its Y branches in Summer 2017 and help support implementation at one additional school-based program site operated by the Discovery Place. After positive first year results for just over 200 students, the program was scaled each subsequent year to serve more children at more sites. The YMCA implemented SLI at its own summer camps at Y branches and supported SLI adoption at other community organizations. In Summer 2021, nearly 2,400 students were served at 32 sites across 14 organizations. To date, 4,539 children have received reading instruction through the SLI program. There are active discussions about how to expand the SLI model year-round at local community organizations.
In 2017, we launched a three-year initiative with 10 nonprofits to change the way they used and thought about data. Ultimately, eight nonprofits completed it. Several of the nonprofit partners reported that what they learned through the Data Collaborative helped them navigate the uncertainty of the early pandemic months in 2020. One of the best examples of this initiative’s impact came from one of the agency leaders in a February 2020 meeting with the Read Charlotte board: “I’m no longer afraid of data.”
In 2018, we brought the evidence-based HELPS reading fluency program to Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Reading fluency is reading with speed, accuracy, and good expression. Students who read too slowly are not able to focus on comprehension. Prior to the pandemic, we believed we could improve third grade reading outcomes by about 20 percentage points with a targeted and timely focus on reading fluency starting in first grade. We began with multiple pilots of training volunteers in Spring 2018, a summer pilot with UrbanPromise, and then a rollout to about 10 elementary schools in the fall. Read Charlotte was heavily involved in the startup in the first two years. It has operated continuously in Mecklenburg County ever since. In the 2021-2022 academic year, HELPS was an officially endorsed tutoring program by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
In Fall 2017, we conducted focus groups with families of fourth graders in five high-poverty schools whose children scored at College and Career Ready on their third grade reading assessments in the spring. Our intention was to confirm the functioning of the Home Literacy Model to explain why these children were beating the odds for literacy. (We did.) We learned in this process that there was no “go-to” resource for families to use to support literacy at home. In fall 2018 we launched HomeReadingHelper.org as an easy to use resource for families with children from Pre-K through third grade. Since then, the Home Reading Helper has seen 1.3 million page views nationwide. The videos have more than 2.5 million views on YouTube. The Home Reading Helper also inspired the creation of the Digital Children’s Reading Initiative at the North Carolina Department of Instruction. Many of the Home Reading Helper resources are used in this resources, which as of July 2022 will be linked to every public school district website in the State of North Carolina.
As the pandemic broke out in spring 2020, we began work on adapting an evidence-based solution proven in the classroom for use in the home. The Reading Checkup is powered by the A2i (Assessment to Instruction) platform developed by Dr. Carol Connor. We had tracked Dr. Connor’s research since mid-2017 and jumped at the opportunity to partner with the company she co-founded, Learning Ovations, to work collaboratively to adapt her classroom-based solution for use in the home. In just 20 minutes, families can find out their PK-3rd grade child’s reading and vocabulary levels and get customized recommendations of family-friendly activities they can do at home. Multiple organizations helped us develop the family-friendly activities, including Augustine Literacy Project-Charlotte and Helps Education Fund. CMS helped create instructional videos for families on how to do the activities. More than 100 local organizations helped to get the word out to families in summer 2020. Since then, we’ve worked and learned from local organizations about best practices for using the Reading Checkup with families, which we codified in a Partner Portal. Charlotte Bilingual Preschool developed a program (Reading Bridge) around the Reading Checkup. Black Child Development Institute-Charlotte today uses the Reading Checkup as a key resource in its family empowerment work. As of June 2022, more than 4,500 Checkups have been completed.
In early 2020, we noticed that some nonprofit organizations were beginning to use the Reading Checkup for their after school programs. The Reading Checkup is designed for households with one to three children – not classrooms or whole programs of children. We worked with Learning Ovations to build upon the user-friendly design of the Reading Checkup to support out-of-school programs with a community version of the A2i platform, called A2i After School. We developed an entire system of coaching, training, and support for local organizations to use this platform to be able to deliver high-impact tutoring within their existing programs. In the 2021-2022 school year, we partnered with nine after school programs, serving 807 students through the school year.
A2i is an evidence-based, data-driven professional support system that helps teachers tailor instruction for each child. A2i combines online adaptive assessments of children’s reading and vocabulary, algorithmically-driven individualized instructional recommendations, and embedded lesson planning linked to a district’s reading program, along with data visualization tools and online professional development tools for teachers.
MDRC, the national research and evaluation organization, sums up the evidence for A2i: “This intervention has strong evidence of efficacy based on randomized controlled trials and quasi-experiments conducted since 2005 in 28 schools in Florida and Arizona. These studies repeatedly demonstrated that schools using A2i can accelerate gains in literacy during the crucial early elementary grades for all students, including high-need students, children living in poverty, English learners, and children receiving special education services.”
A group of seven local schools (one charter, six CMS) began to pilot A2i during the 2021-2022 school year.
Changes in how resources are used – whether pooled funds or aligned funds – is a form of system change. Since 2016, Read Charlotte has led a local collaborative of funders (strategic co-funders) to support a portfolio of projects in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Read Charlotte originated these projects, seeking to either scale up existing initiatives or seed and test new ideas. A total of $8.3 million from nearly two dozen local funders co-funded 16 projects, creating a strong example of funder collaboration.
There are multiple ways we could measure program-level impact. Changes in attitude, knowledge, beliefs, behavior, or awareness all count as program impact. For the most part, however, we report impact regarding student reading outcomes.
Based upon a March 2022 family survey, 95% of respondents said they did Ready4K activities at least once per week with their children and 100% found the Ready4K texts helpful. One parent said, “I have forgotten what it's like to be a kid in many ways. These messages help give me perspective and real world examples. I like the tips.” (Note: 232 of 1,081 active users in Charlotte-Mecklenburg responded to the survey.)
Since 2017, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte led the implementation and refinement of a model we found in Philadelphia to stop summer learning loss. The Philadelphia Out of School Time Initiative (POSTLI) developed the Summer Literacy Infusion model to add one hour of literacy to traditional summer camps four days a week. The model in Charlotte includes 15 minutes of each of these activities: interactive read aloud, choice reading, games, and free writing. The YMCA implemented SLI at its own summer camps at Y branches and supported SLI adoption at other community organizations. This collaboration with the Y has yielded incredible impact for K-3 students over multiple years.
Summer 2017: 214 students, 95% maintained or improved reading
Summer 2018: 680 students, 74% maintained or improved reading
Summer 2019: 1,071 students, 85% maintained or improved reading
Summer 2021: 2,394 students, 94% maintained or improved reading
In the first year of local implementation (2018-2019), 46% of students who received HELPS tutoring exceeded expected growth in reading fluency. Students who received at least 50 HELPS tutoring sessions grew just over 1.5 grade levels in reading fluency in a single year. Similar results have been achieved each year for students in the HELPS program. As of June 2022, about 1,500 students have received HELPS tutoring since fall 2018.
Read Charlotte is partnering with charter and district schools to pilot the A2i platform in Mecklenburg County. Based upon the research and evidence Read Charlotte has seen from other school districts, we hope that A2i will help support local schools to differentiate reading instruction (Multi-Tiered System of Supports). Over a three-year period, if used with fidelity, we hope A2i will support significant improvement in participating schools on K-3 formative reading assessments and Grade 3 state reading assessments – including a narrowing of reading achievement gaps for Black and Hispanic students.
The next two levels of impact are school-level and district-level impact. School-level impact comes from the combined effort of classroom instruction, extra support from out-of-school programs, and student reading supports at home. School-level impact is demonstrated by improved K-3 reading outcomes on formative assessments and performance on the North Carolina third grade reading assessment. School-level impact involves both improving multi-year trend lines and closing achievement gaps.
District level change comes from the cumulative changes in multiple schools. In other words, community-level change begins with improvements in individual schools.
There are at least three key factors involved in creating school-level and district-level impact. The work has to happen over multiple academic years, for students in multiple grades (K-3), and support enough students within a school (scale). For district-level impact, we have to reach school-level impact in enough schools to make an impact overall and to close achievement gaps.
In late 2019, Read Charlotte board and staff began to focus on this issue of scale. The pandemic, however, put a complete stop to these efforts. Over the next three academic years (fall 2022 through spring 2025), we are focused on working with CMS and our community partners (using targeted interventions and strategies) to demonstrate school-level impact in multiple schools. Given the significant impact of the pandemic on early literacy, we’re currently uncertain about the level of district-level impact possible given the impact of the pandemic – but we know it will be based upon improvements that occur at the school level. We will continue to push to gain as much impact as possible by 2025.