This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Notebook sat down with Jenny Bogoni of the Free Library, READ! by 4th’s executive director. In the interview, she outlines the mission of the campaign, its strategies, and challenges.
What is the READ! by 4th campaign’s main goal?
Ensuring all children can read on grade level by the time they enter 4th grade.
Why does Philadelphia need this campaign now?
For decades, we have had a high percentage of kids not reading on grade level. There is research nationally and locally that shows that kids who aren’t reading on grade level by the time they reach 4th grade are set on a path where they’re unlikely to be successful.
They are four times more likely to not graduate high school on time. Research also shows that if you don’t graduate on time you are more likely to not attend college and earn less than a family-sustaining wage in your lifetime.
As the pedagogy shifts from learning to read to reading to learn, students are essentially no longer being taught how to read. They have to use their reading skills to learn other things. And if they’re not reading on grade level, they’re then not learning those other things effectively. All of these things just pile on each other.
Reading by 4th grade is the gateway benchmark to a life of success. And if we are not fulfilling this benchmark for kids, we’re not giving them this fundamental skill that they need for everything else and our city’s got no hope. This is the foundation of everything else. Philadelphia is trying to become a world-class city. This is why we need this campaign now.
Previously you’ve talked about the four strands of the campaign: increasing parent involvement, improving student attendance, strengthening instructional strategies, and creating avenues for outside-of-school learning time. Would you say that any of these four is more important than another?
No. It’s the interlocking nature of the four that is key. Parents need to understand how they can be the best and first teachers of their children. We need to give them the tools and the strategies to do that and to feel empowered to do it. I don’t know a parent anywhere who doesn’t want their kid to learn how to read.
Once kids are supported in the home and in their communities, we need kids attending school regularly. If they can’t attend school regularly, every day and on time, they’re not going to be there to learn from the specialists. And with instructional strategies, more and more people are [saying] that teaching reading is rocket science. It is complicated. It’s not something you can just do casually. It’s extremely critical to have those trained professionals with best practices in reading instruction.
And then we need out-of–school time and spaces where kids can reinforce instruction. And it’s the interplay of those four strategies that will allow it to be successful.
So can we describe these four areas as a staircase, with each step representing a facet of the campaign?
I don’t think of them as chronological, but more as four legs of a table. Without any one leg, the table isn’t stable.
How does the campaign decide what area it pushes for when? For example, do you say “we will focus on improving attendance today, and in two weeks we will tap into parent engagement”? How is it all organized?
Everything has to be pushed simultaneously. There’s urgency to this mission and this vision that requires that we both build the plane and fly the plane at the same time. To some degree, people out there know what should be done. There are best practices and research-proven strategies. We now have to adopt them, implement them, and find resources to scale them.
We must also make sure that none of our neighborhoods are left behind and that all of our children can be touched. But because I feel like these four legs of the table are all important, they have to be happening together.
So how do you plan to make these things happen simultaneously? And how do you hold READ! by 4th partners accountable?
We are an initiative, an effort. We are driven by a coalition of partners. So it’s the ability of the campaign to articulate a set of standards that we believe to be essential. That would be going below each of those four pillars, determining some of the key activities we want to see, and articulating what those are so that people and organizations know what we are prioritizing. Then, to some degree, we have to hope that the resources flow to let people implement them with as much fidelity as a possible. We need to encourage philanthropy to invest in those priority strategies. We have to keep all of those balls in the air at once.
Data from 2012 show that in Philadelphia, 70 percent of White kids and 57 percent of Asian kids met proficiency, compared to less than 40 percent of Blacks and Latinos. Proficiency levels were also lower for special education students and those learning English. Has the campaign tailored strategy towards this achievement gap and reaching out to certain communities over others?
That decision hasn’t been made yet. That’s a discussion we need to have at the advisory council level. I personally believe that tailored strategies make some sense. We must still make the decision whether to identify tailored strategies and not do anything else, or just have, among our set of strategies, some that are tailored to certain groups.
Skeptics of the campaign claim that it does not and will not reach enough kids, but one way to address this would be to make sure each child has access to a library. Does the campaign advocate for school libraries with full-time certified librarians?
The campaign has not identified an advocacy agenda. If we as a city are committed to this vision, then we have to have a conversation about what resources are necessary. What are the conditions for success that will allow all of these strategies to survive?
When skeptics say "What’s our likelihood of touching all kids?" it really depends on to what degree Philadelphia decides to makes this a priority. So that’s part of making this a campaign and not a program. We have to talk about the statistics, develop an advocacy agenda, and get people invested financially and with their own time and energy in what we are doing.
What makes READ! by 4th different from anything the city has seen before?
It is this collective impact approach. It is an ever-growing group of partners that has come together around a shared vision. We are working to identify shared metrics and are committed to shared accountability and working together to ensure that the strategies they prioritize get implemented.
Do you feel that the campaign has everything it needs to meet its goal? If not, what kind of support does the campaign lack?
We do not have everything we need. We need fully funded schools with a fair funding formula, which many groups have been working toward for a long time. We need more high-quality Pre-K slots, and we need to make sure kids and families know how to access them and are taking advantage of them. We need families to be aware of the small, yet important things they can do to set their kids up for success. It can be something as simple as singing to their kids each day. We need this known by every family in every corner of our city. We need a belief and sense of urgency this campaign can and should be done and should permeate the city. It needs to become everybody’s priority.
Can you speak on the role of certain partners? Is there something that each partner is assigned to work on?
The request is that the partners continue to do, and perhaps increase, what they would normally do around this initiative. Funders are asked to continue to fund or increase their funding. Literacy specialists inform people about how to teach kids, for example. So everyone has their role to play. We’re not asking people to go outside of their role. Partners who get to sit around a table together to create a shared vision start to imagine new and different things they could be doing but haven’t thought about. So one could imagine over time that companies who might be funders can find programmatic ways they might be involved as well.
Who would you like to call to the table? Is there a certain industry absent or any major groups around the city you’d like to call to action?
There’s a role for every sector. There are sectors we’ve talked to less deeply, like all of the major cultural institutions, many of whom have said they are ready and willing to help. We just haven’t had a deep conversation about their roles.
More companies can be at the table in new ways. We can start to think about how their HR departments can be vehicles to educate parents who are their employees. So that goes beyond how to use them just as funders. The health sector should be involved. We can tap into the role pediatricians play informing parents on what they should be doing with their children.
The faith-based community should also be involved. Anywhere that families are where there are trusted voices – we need to think about how to tap those. If just the usual suspects are in the room, we aren’t going to be successful. Of course we need every youth-serving organization in town to be listening to this and figuring out what their role is, but then it has to go beyond that.
What about the campaign excites you the most?
I know our children want to read and can read if they’re given the right supports. I want every child, every future adult citizen of the city to be able to have access to the skills that will set them on the path to be what they want to be. I want us to invest in our children, and I want to see them succeed.
Who is Jenny, and what charges you to lead this campaign?
I’ve been working since the mid-1990s in education, mostly nonprofit work related to children. I’ve become intimately aware of the state of our public schools and the challenges families and children face. And now, years later, I’m the mother of two children who themselves are trying to learn to read, and I see how hard it is to guide our kids through that process. It’s not easy for anybody, and I wish there was more clarity and more of a road map for me to help my kids get there.
What can we look forward to from the campaign in the next months?
We are beginning to delve into a communications agenda, determining what the outreach to the communities should look like and the kinds of activities we will be launching at the community neighborhood level. It’s time for READ! by 4th to get more specific on what programmatic strategies we want to see implemented as priorities in the coming years – and what our plans are for getting those off the ground.