Leslie Boissiere is chief operating officer of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, launched by the Casey Foundation with other funders in 2010. The Campaign works to boost the number of low-income children reading on grade level by the end of the third grade, a critical milestone for school success and high school graduation. Boissiere joined the Campaign in 2013. Previously, she was a vice president for AARP, where she oversaw financial security programs; served as executive director for the White House Council for Community Solutions; led home ownership initiatives for Fannie Mae; and was a finance manager for Proctor and Gamble.
Q1. How has the Campaign progressed since its inception?
Coalitions in more than 167 communities in 41 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have joined the Campaign so far. In many states, large numbers of communities are coming on board, creating critical mass to improve reading proficiency. More and more states and governors are taking action on policies and programs related to third-grade reading through legislation and executive action. And more than100 local foundations are investing in this work in their communities. At the same time, media coverage across the nation has increased significant attention to the importance of early reading skills.
Q2. What do you think is the Campaign’s most significant accomplishment?
You need a deep level of local engagement to sustain this work over time and ensure its success, so getting local funders on board in communities and states has been the most critical development. We are seeing promising examples of coalitions of public, private and nonprofit organizations uniting and joining forces behind a commitment to improve third-grade reading proficiency. The fact that we are seeing this kind of investment in a tight budgetary environment is an indication of this growing awareness that prevention is less costly than remediation.
Q3. The White House recently held a summit on early education and announced a collaborative effort to promote greater investments in the early years. How will this advance the goals of the Campaign?
Ensuring that children have the support early in life to start school ready to learn is critical. The Campaign’s work across the country has demonstrated that in order to make progress, you have to invest in the early years and the early grades. The attention devoted to this issue at the White House summit, along with the launch of Invest in US, a joint effort by practitioners, advocates, policymakers and philanthropists to boost resources for early childhood, offers a really important opportunity to amplify the importance of the issue. The new investments announced at the summit will also expand opportunities for children and parents to participate in programs that ensure healthy, on-track development and early literacy.
Q4. The Campaign set an ambitious goal to double the numbers of children reading on grade level by the end of the third grade by 2020. What are the biggest obstacles?
One critical challenge is collecting the right data and putting in place the right mechanisms to measure progress on the key Campaign strategies—improving school readiness, curbing chronic absence and expanding summer learning opportunities. The Campaign has helped focus communities on data and results by piloting the use of a data-driven tool called the Results Scorecard and by creating a self-assessment tool that sites can use to gauge progress in all the key areas. In 2014, nearly half the Network communities completed the self-assessment.
Q5. How does the Campaign help communities and states involved in the Campaign stay connected and learn from each other?
The Campaign has a Network Community Support Center that helps sites share promising practices, stories and strategies. For example, in Oakland, California, the Rogers Family Foundation, working with the local grade-level reading coalition, has used three school years’ worth of data to construct the Oakland Reads Baseline Report, which assesses trends in school readiness, attendance, summer learning and parent engagement to improve third-grade reading proficiency. In Connecticut, a group of communities have worked together to make significant gains in reducing chronic absence. Dubuque has made a multi-year investment in summer programs with literacy components. A home-visiting program for parents in Buffalo is improving kindergarten readiness. A “walking school bus” in Springfield, Massachusetts — which brings parents and teachers together to walk children to school — is boosting attendance rates. Georgia has a launched a “language nutrition” to stem the word gap between children from low-income families and their more affluent peers.