Senior Vice President and Managing Director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
Ralph Smith calls himself a “recovering law professor,” but he acknowledges that his background as a corporate and securities lawyer helped him to appreciate the role of markets and the private sector and the value of cross-sector collaboration.
Bringing together “unusual allies” and “unlikely champions” has been a hallmark of Smith’s work at Casey, from his leadership in supporting fathers in their critical role in children’s lives to mobilizing communities to be change agents in improving outcomes for vulnerable children and families to promoting reforms that help ex-offenders become productive citizens.
“A significant part of my work involves finding that sliver of agreement between and among constituencies and growing that into common ground,” says Smith, who cultivates alliances around “common sense” principles that diverse partners can embrace. In Making Connections, for example, the initiative’s unifying theme was that children do well when their families do well and families do better when they live in supportive communities.
As managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading since 2010, Smith has been forging consensus around ensuring that children reach the critical developmental milestone of reading on grade level by the end of third grade. “Focusing on helping the youngest children succeed in school was the logical next step to advance the Foundation’s two-generation strategy for attacking intergenerational poverty,” notes Smith, referring to Casey’s efforts to help low-income parents succeed economically while improving access to high-quality early childhood learning opportunities to give their children a strong start.
The Campaign is grounded in research highlighting the alarming numbers of children who are not reading proficiently by third grade and the long-term consequences for society. “If left unchecked, this problem will undermine efforts to end the cycle of poverty, close the achievement gap and reduce high school dropout rates. Far fewer of the next generation will be prepared to succeed in the global economy as parents and as citizens,” Smith says.
Smith made his early mark in academia by teaching corporations and securities regulation at the University of Pennsylvania, but it was his years serving the Philadelphia School District as chief of staff and special counsel that helped him understand “the interplay between what was going on in schools and classrooms and what was going on in the lives of the children at home and in their communities,” he says. "Both were major contributors to the success or lack of success of young people.”
Working with Casey leadership to “put families at the center of the Foundation’s efforts to improve outcomes for disadvantaged kids” numbers among Smith’s proudest accomplishments at Casey. Another is “helping to build a culture where people are encouraged to take risks and to get personally involved with the work.”
“What crystallizes the moral imperative to act is the awareness and belief that acting can make a difference,” Smith says.