Boston Harbor Association kids jumping

Talk/Read/Succeed – Inspiration and Ideas from Springfield

With an ambitious, citywide goal, what’s the right scale to get started? What target population is small enough that results are achievable and the impacts tangible? In Springfield, Massachusetts, it looks like the answer is 180 families.

Recently I had the chance to visit Springfield, Massachusetts to see firsthand some of the inspiring work unleashed by the city’s “Reading Success by 4th Grade” campaign. This campaign started when only thirty-six percent of Springfield third-graders scored proficient or better in reading on the 2009 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

In response, the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation launched a year-long community engagement and research process that produced a blueprint for citywide, collective action. The goal of the campaign is that, by 2016, eighty percent of Springfield’s children will be proficient or better readers by the end of third grade. This is an important goal, as children learn to read through the third grade, but must read to learn in later years. Struggling readers are significantly more at risk of dropping out of school.

Third-grade reading proficiency rates in Boston are similar to those in Springfield—in 2012, only thirty-four percent of Boston third-graders scored proficient or advanced. So I was thrilled to have an opportunity to learn about Springfield’s work. Traveling with me to Springfield were several colleagues interested in early language and healthy child development: Wendy Puriefoy, Barr’s director of education; Shanna Shulman of the Smith Family Foundation; Corey Zimmerman of United Way of Massachusetts Bay & Merrimack Valley; and Dinah Shepherd of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School.

Our host and guide was Sally Fuller, project director for “Reading Success by 4th Grade” at the Davis Foundation. Our itinerary focused on Talk/Read/Succeed, an early literacy program working with 180 families at two Springfield Housing Authority developments to support children’s literacy and learning.

Children and families at a Talk/Read/Succeed kickoff event at Robinson Apartments - photo courtesy of Davis Foundation

Davis Foundation

Our first stop was the John J. Sullivan Apartments, where we met in a beautiful, onsite Head Start classroom—one that, due to sequestration, was already closed for the year. We had a great, in-depth conversation with Talk/Read/Succeed staff and a participating parent about the program’s focus on four priorities: parent engagement, parent education, child education, and family self-sufficiency. I was struck by their process of periodically surveying families during one-on-one home visits, and by how the simple act of asking families what they want and need—and responding to those needs—helps them to get more engaged. This was later underscored for us by Rhonda Stowell Lewis, principal at Dorman Elementary School. Lewis pointed out that Talk/Read/Succeed families continued to be engaged parents once their children entered elementary school. She also noted that since Talk/Read/Succeed had launched, suspensions had steadily decreased, from sixty-four in 2011 to only eleven in 2013.

Children at the Dorman School - a Talk/Read/Succeed site - during a visit by a children's picture book artist as part of the collaboration with the Eric Carle Museum

Davis Foundation

Our next stop was Boland Elementary School, where we spoke with a group of almost thirty people engaged in Talk/Read/Succeed and the “Reading Success by 4th Grade” campaign—ranging from the housing authority to the regional employment board, from the education association to the library.

Talk/Read/Succeed staff at a parent empowerment conference

Davis Foundation

In different ways, each expressed the shared goal of engaging parents as partners. It was clear that all of the programs had put the 180 families participating in Talk/Read/Succeed at the center of the equation, allowing family input and needs to inform and change their practices. The change in thinking and behavior across a wide spectrum of city agencies and community organizations was palpable.

After our visit I kept thinking about this change and how it connected to Springfield’s initial decision to focus on just 180 families in two housing developments. While that may seem like a small number compared to the city as a whole, it is actually a just-right number. It is small enough for results to be achievable and to make real differences in the lives of participating families. At the same time, because of all the different agencies and organizations that intersect at these two housing developments, that number is just big enough to change how a whole system of supports interacts with families citywide.

This was a big takeaway for me for our work in Boston.

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Kimberly Haskins

Senior Program Officer, Sector Effectiveness