How would life feel if your ability to listen, read, write, speak, think and respond was not at the same level as others around you? If you do not speak the dominant language of a region, you may experience how this feels. Navigating life’s daily terrain becomes more challenging and you could feel frustrated or as if you cannot express yourself completely.
Literacy leads to lifelong learning
Participating in meaningful conversations with someone else, acquiring crucial information that aids in good decision-making and listening to or reading about another’s experiences for insight or enjoyment are all examples of the richness found in what we think of as literacy. Research shows that good literacy skills allow kids the ability to explore subjects deeply and gain an understanding of the world around them. Learners with good literacy skills are more likely to meet educational milestones, remain engaged in school and become lifelong learners.
Literacy is so core to who we are and what we may achieve that any diminishment of these skills contributes to lost learning opportunities, especially in school, and to a decrease in quality of life overall. In the twenty-first century, literacy is essential. It contributes to a person’s educational and career achievement and ability to effectively participate in society. Literacy gives individuals access to knowledge that strengthens our Central Minnesota community. Yet we also know that not all young people in our area find the resources and support needed to build strong skills. For example, 10% of English language learners have not achieved proficiency on the state reading assessment. And this is just one example of the gaps found in the data surrounding literacy learning. To address these kinds of disparities, United Way of Central Minnesota (UWCM) supports access to high-quality books and literacy experiences for all learners in our community.
Literacy Begins at the Start
United Way connects many local partners to help promote and strengthen literacy, and this work ideally begins early in a child’s life. UWCM has long supported Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and provides the delivery of a book a month to enrolled children, starting at birth and through age five. We also promote early childhood literacy through the annual community event, Llama Llama Read-a-Rama, held at the St. Cloud Great River Regional Library.
Most recently, UWCM has developed new programming to support the caregivers of early learners. In collaboration with several St. Cloud community organizations, UWCM offers Parent Power Network and Parent Engagement and Community Investment (PECI) sessions, where caregivers can meet with other caregivers to learn, share and support one another as they foster family literacy. While the sessions are open to anyone, the group focuses on the needs of young children and caregivers of East African descent.
United Way’s Director of Education Partnerships Stef Rothstein, explains that supporting early literacy often means supporting family literacy: “We recognize that caregivers have to be in a good place and feel confident and supported in order for them to help their children.”
Ekram Elmoge, family engagement manager at United Way, agrees and adds, “When we engage in conversation and early literacy activities with families, we are strategically starting kids off in the right place. The gaps in school achievement that happen later start here. Helping families understand how to get young children involved in literacy is one of the most important goals for us.”
In addition, Isabelle Joseph, the newest member of United Way’s education focus area, will expand these kinds of opportunities, especially for systematically unreached families and their children.
Resources and Books in the Hands of Learners
When children move beyond early learning during their educational journey, literacy continues to be critical to their success. UWCM trains caring adults to implement the American Reading Company (ARC) curriculum in schools, afterschool and community programs to support literacy development across learning environments. United Way provides this training to partners like Promise Neighborhood, Boys and Girls Club of Central Minnesota, Too Much Talent, Align Learning Center, Great River Regional Library, to name only a few. UWCM’s Vice President of Education, Amy Trombley, says the agency uses data to make sure implementation of the ARC program has a lasting impact on the community and reaches the kids who need to strengthen their skills and interest in literacy the most. “We get resources and books into the community and provide ways for young people in our community to interact with literacy in positive ways both inside and outside of school and in ways that are aligned and consistent. Our work’s lasting impact is within individual children, but also within all of the centers with ARC training and resources, available to also influence future generations.”
UWCM VISTA literacy leader, Janeen Diming, works within programs to understand needs, modify lessons and develop opportunities to implement literacy plans. Diming serves learners of all ages and supplies programs with books and activities with diverse representation, helping to increase literacy learners’ positive identity and engagement. She explains what her goals for her work include: “My hope is that I can help schools, organizations and families so we all come together and build a strong foundation for our kids. I hope that when children go out in this world--as they grow older--they have a positive view of themselves and they know that they can do anything they want to.”
Improved Literacy for a Thriving Central Minnesota
UWCM works regionally and at the state and national levels to expand literacy advocacy both in and outside of schools. Join these efforts by contacting your federal and state representatives to let them know that you value the development of literacy programs in Central Minnesota.
You can also support literacy in our region by directly engaging in reading activities with young people. Locate opportunities to read with kids as a volunteer and carve out time to read with your own family members. Support local events that supply readers of all levels with quality books and materials representing various perspectives and featuring characters from diverse backgrounds. Finally, consider a donation to UWCM and designate your dollars to support education initiatives, where literacy is always central to student success.
Improved literacy for all learners contributes to a thriving community composed of people with richer lives and the ability to navigate a world where reading, writing, listening and speaking are critical skills. Trombley believes United Way will provide even fuller literacy support in the future. “As we continue to develop and grow programs in depth and scope, we will meet the needs of our whole community, including those who have been historically under-supported. If we are committed to the development of literacy in every child--not based on their race, zip code or income level--we will see the student achievement scores in Central Minnesota increase and the opportunity gap for all area students shrink.”