Worcester Winds on Grade-Level reading

Eye on Early Education, September 14, 2017 by Alyssa Haywoode

Patrick Lowe used to send some his emails in the middle of the night. As a busy medical school student, this was sometimes the only time he had to work on Worcester’s application for an All-America City award.

Bestowed by the National Civic League and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the award recognized communities that helped “more young children from low-income families achieve grade-level reading proficiency and early school success.”

Kim Davenport, meanwhile, worked during the day, reading Lowe’s emails and working with him to submit a convincing application for the award. Davenport, the managing director of Birth to 3rd Grade Alignment at Edward Street Child Services, was steeped in the work of pooling resources from across the city to help young children succeed.

Worcester had won the award five times before. But not since 2000.

For Patrick Lowe, applying for this award was the final project for Leadership Worcester, a nine-month program that engaged Lowe and some 20-odd other “promising new professionals in Greater Worcester’s civic life.”

Lowe had graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. And as a student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, also located in Worcester, he had been looking for ways to be more engaged in the city. Leadership Worcester created that opportunity. Every year, the program immersed each class in Worcester’s politics, economics, and challenges, as well as in the city’s goals and dreams.

“We brought together a tremendous team from the community – young leaders, teachers, funders and early childhood educators – to rally around this award and celebrate the tremendous programs in our city focused on improving early education,” Lowe told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.

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Worcester, meanwhile, had been focused on children’s literacy for years. Patty Eppinger and her husband, Fred, a former CEO of Hanover Insurance, had been long-time champions of literacy.

By 2012, Worcester had crafted a Community Solutions Action Plan to boost grade-level reading. The plan had three pillars: early education and school readiness; student attendance; and summer learning.

In 2014, the city saw the launch of Worcester Reads, a coalition of community organizations “committed to promoting early literacy and reading.” Co-chaired by Edward Street Child Services and the Worcester Education Collaborative, the coalition promotes a simple, powerful message: Read to your child every day for 20 minutes. “It is the Most Important 20 Minutes of Your Day!”

Among the results: Thanks to the One City, One Library initiative, four elementary schools opened new libraries. All but one pediatric practice in the city participated in Reach Out and Read, the well-known program that puts books directly in children’s hands. The United Way of Central Massachusetts developed a program that integrated language and literacy into summer camp programs. And efforts that had happened in pockets were being stitched together to create a citywide web of action.

Worcester was also making good use of data. The School-Community Data Working Group was combing through statistics, “to learn more about the impact of preschool programming” on school readiness, according to the All-America City Award application.

This work “also supports data needs for Worcester’s Summer Literacy Initiative” enabling the city to do “pre- and post-summer data analysis on participating student performance in 1st through 3rd grades using District literacy and reading measures.”

Add a heart-warming story about children creating Valentine’s Day cards and entering them into a competition to win books, and Worcester had what seemed like a winning application on its hands.

Last April, Worcester was named one of 27 finalists. In June, Lowe and Davenport jointed a team and traveled to the awards ceremony in Denver. There were workshops and roundtables and plenary sessions. Lowe was part of a panel that presented the city’s research and work on managing asthma to boost school attendance rates among young children.

And, finally, there was the award ceremony and the anticipation as the 15 winning cities were announced… and then came the disappointment.

Worcester didn’t win an award.

Although it turns out that winning an award didn’t matter, as Lowe explained. Worcester wins because its energy and momentum are so strong — and because attendees made the best of the Denver event, learning from other cities and getting useful feedback. Now, all this information is being processed. New plans are being made.

“We see where we can do better,” Davenport explained.

“We can bring more efforts to scale,” Lowe said.

“That’s what will help more children,” Davenport concluded.

And helping more children, of course, is the most important victory of all.