Reprinted with permission by the Commercial Appeal
by Jane Roberts
In portable units on a block of Jennette Place in South Memphis hemmed with fresh murals and a community garden, Knowledge Quest is preparing to hunker down on a first this summer.
Instead of running its own reading program, it will use a model developed by Literacy Mid-South. So will Agape Child & Family Services, YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South and half a dozen other groups. It means 1,000 to 1,500 Memphis schoolchildren will have a quality reading program focused on skills their test scores show they missed.
Over time, the concentration — at no cost to taxpayers — is expected to whittle down the more than 60 percent of children here who are behind in reading when they start third grade.
The work is coordinated by Seeding Success, a data-based effort to connect nonprofits already in involved in literacy and improving college-access to each other and to public schools.
In return for the cooperation, Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District will share test data so the nonprofit partners can tailor the help. And because the data will flow both ways, Knowledge Quest and the 30 other nonprofits already signed on will be able to see if or how their efforts are moving the needle.
“Our work is really fundamentally about continuous improvement,” said Seeding executive director Mark Sturgis.
The first year budget is $500,000, funded by FedEx Corp., Pyramid Peak, Target, Schoolseed and United Way. Seeding Success, which has four employees and is based in loaned space at United Way, is an offshoot of StriveTogether, a strategy that started in Cincinnati in 2006 and has spread to more than 100 cities.
“We realized we were program rich and system poor,” said Jeff Edmondson, Strive national director. “What we needed was a way to become system rich, and that’s far from a smooth and easy process. ”
In its first five years, StriveTogether improved 40 of the 53 educational goals it identified with Cincinnati school district leaders, including a 9 percent gain in the number of kids prepared to succeed in kindergarten and an 11 percent uptick in high school graduation rates.
When parents here sign “informed” consent forms, their student’s test data will flow from SCS or the ASD to the nonprofits serving their child.
“By using district data and expertise to connect to community partners to student need, our community will see some quick wins,” said school board chairman Kevin Woods. “With so many organizations wanting to improve student outcome, we now will be able to deploy that help in a more strategic manner.”
Knowledge Quest has been working in South Memphis for 16 years. For several years, it has had access to its students’ report cards and progress reports. Under Seeding, it will get more frequent updates, allowing it to dig in quicker.
Sturgis, a former teacher, was executive director of Memphis Stand for Children until January 2013 when he left to start Seeding Success.
“Those who are involved in the partnerships are really committed to seeing if what they are doing is working,” he said. “If not, how do we improve, or if it is working, how do we continue to improve and scale up? It’s not the why but the how.”
His new challenge is helping nonprofits collect data from their programs to help teachers and other agencies know who is doing what and to what effect.
The K-3 literacy track gets its formal start in two months with the first synchronized summer reading program.
“One big piece that is really important is that those doing the teaching or tutoring have a deeper knowledge of what it takes to learn to read,” said Jeff Rhodin, Literacy Mid-South's Partnership Development Manager. “We are putting together a workshop series to increase the capacity of community providers to teach.”
Strive was born out of “spray and pray” mentality, Edmondson says. “We got tired of spraying resources around and praying it worked. It didn’t lead to the population-level results we all want, so instead, we emphasize taking a little bit of time and energy to build on your existing successes, and Memphis definitely has them. It’s a new way to go.”
When the first round of tests come back in the fall, the groups working in early literacy will see if their summer efforts produced gains.
“I absolutely expect gains,” said Courtney Robertson, Seeding’s liaison at Knowledge Quest. “Being part of the Strive network helps us to zero in on student outcomes.
“The thing I love is it really focuses on what is best for students. It’s not about shaming or uplifting (nonprofits) but learning from each other.”