Literacy is key to unlocking opportunities for all American children—diminishing the enormous disparities in educational equity and providing brighter futures, no matter where a child is born or what his or her economic status may be. Over a hundred years ago, Margaret Fuller wrote, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” The Walmart Foundation echoed that sentiment when it provided $33M in funding to address middle school literacy.
Although funding for literacy intervention has traditionally targeted early learners, middle school is the time when students start to display a combination of risk factors that are highly predictive of dropping out: low attendance, poor performance in English language arts and math, and negative behaviors. Conversely, research has consistently shown that academic achievement measured as early as sixth grade can be a strong predictor of positive outcomes. If we can provide proven literacy interventions for the thousands of adolescent students who are lagging behind, we will increase their chances for success and expand their future opportunities.
With Walmart Foundation funding, extraordinary things have happened
The Walmart Foundation recognized the urgency of improving adolescent literacy skills and sought to fund organizations with demonstrated success. Essential to the funding were two criteria:
Evidence of a successful track record in directly improving literacy outcomes for the highest-need students.
Established and replicable models that would be scalable and sustainable over time.
The Foundation selected six grantees, and while they differ in their program delivery, all are committed to research-driven solutions for improving academic outcomes and providing materials or services for high quality, extended learning time (ELT) at disadvantaged schools.
BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), City Year, Citizen Schools, Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP), National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), and WGBH all understand that middle school students exposed to a rich educational environment, with ample opportunity for extracurricular and out-of-school activity, are on the fast track toward academic success. Without this, they may instead become disengaged, detached from the promise of school, and at greater risk for dropping out during high school. Adolescent literacy is a significant part of the solution. Data shows that students who are reading at or near grade level when they enter high school have a greater than 80% chance of graduating on time. This alone is a compelling reason to continue focusing on middle school learners and the organizations that support them.
The Walmart Foundation recognizes that its philanthropy has made significant results possible, but needs remain. It is critical that high-quality programs such as these be leveraged and expanded across the country. It is imperative that corporate partnerships, foundations, and individuals as well as the government support these programs' dynamic work for the long run and not leave it to time-limited grants.
The stories described in this report, and the organizations they represent, are enormously encouraging. These six organizations have demonstrated that we can resolve the gap in literacy that remains a barrier for so many kids and that we know what works. With recognition and support, the exceptional outcomes profiled here can become the norm nationwide. When that happens, middle school students in every school and community across the country will be prepared to meet higher expectations, with the promise of an improved future all the more real.