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Shawn Vestal: Book fair at Mead school just part of data-driven effort to help kids

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

In December, Shiloh Hills Elementary School will have a book fair for kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders.

Lots of elementary schools have book fairs, of course. But the Shiloh Hills fair represents new strategies in fighting old challenges of poverty and education – one in which schools, charities, businesses and public officials collaborate, combine resources and look to research and data in developing initiatives to close the “opportunity gap” among poor students and children of color.

The book fair will allow students to pick their own free books, which will be bundled in backpacks with other materials. It is the second year of the backpack initiative, meant to encourage reading among children in their time away from school, and it changed a great deal from the first year.

Those changes say a lot about Excelerate Success, a communitywide collaboration that has set lofty goals about “cradle-to-career” success for kids facing the biggest obstacles. The organization, centered at the United Way, is an attempt to harness “collective impact” among wide-ranging organizations, encouraging communication, shared resources and responsibility, and measured results.

The idea behind collective impact is simple: People engaged in fighting different parts of the same problem should join forces, share resources and look for new solutions. In practice, though, organizations tend to atomize, focusing on their piece of the problem.

Excelerate Success wants to organize around shared goals, not buildings or grants. Its partners include school districts, colleges, corporations and charities, and it has created networks around main goals: improving health and readiness among kids entering kindergarten; helping them be successful and graduate; and making sure everyone can go on to college or other postsecondary education and be ready for a career.

There are big gaps in academic success between impoverished students and children of color and the rest of the student population, and since about half of all Spokane County schoolchildren are classified as low-income, this dynamic has particular urgency here. This is not new – the “achievement gap,” in its various iterations, is a stubbornly familiar problem.

But “we can’t stop trying – we just can’t stop,” said Amy McGreevy, the group’s executive director. “We need to think differently about how we get something done.”

Sally Pritchard, vice president of community impact for United Way, said the organization grew from the success of Spokane’s collaborative effort to improve graduation rates, as well as from examples in other communities of the possibilities from collective impact. Excelerate Success formed officially in 2013. McGreevy has been the executive director for about a year and a half, as the networks have begun moving from planning into the first concrete initiatives.

“We’ve moved very fast in the last year,” she said. “It’s exciting to see that mobilization.”

One example is kindergarten readiness. According to state assessments, only about a third of Spokane County kids entering kindergarten last year were considered ready by all six developmental measures. Poor kids and minority students scored even lower.

Excelerate Success set a goal of having 85 percent of kids kindergarten-ready by 2020. One initiative aims to get more students registered for kindergarten early – which would be a way for various partners, including school districts, libraries and preschools, to begin communicating with families about resources and expectations.

“The highest-poverty schools have the largest percentage of kindergartners registering at the last minute or during the first week of school,” Pritchard said.

So next year a push for early registration will begin across all local school districts. McGreevy said child care centers and preschools are a part of the effort, but the network is also looking for ways to communicate to the families of kids being cared for by friends and relatives.

The earlier a family registers for kindergarten, the sooner they have access to information from the school district and from community partners, she said.

The book fair project is an effort to meet another of the organization’s main goals: having students reading at grade level by third grade. Summer and out-of-school reading are key indicators of success by early readers, and low-income and minority students tend to have fewer books at home. Last year, the organization initiated “Backpacks & Books,” distributing books and packs to 1,000 kids around the county.

But project organizers want to operate on a basis of steady and continual improvement. McGreevy said they looked at research about what kind of out-of-school reading contributed the most to student success.

“If a child is able to choose their books, they’re twice as likely to read their books,” she said.

Thus the book fair at Shiloh Hills, a pilot project this year. At the book fair, every student will choose their books – to avoid singling out students receiving help – and receive a backpack later in December. A $10,000 donation from Guardian Insurance covers the costs. Organizers included a reading specialist from the Cheney School District – even though the pilot will be in the Mead district.

If the pilot works, it may be expanded to other schools and districts, with an eye toward continual improvement. That idea is built into the whole approach, McGreevy said.

“We’re going to act,” she said. “We’re going to do the best we can with the information we have and then we’re going to keep on asking if we’re doing it right.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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