It might begin with a child discovering a new word through a volunteer reading to them. Or perhaps a teen struggling in class receives the additional attention needed to pass a math test. These small acts can trigger years of learning and academic success. And when one child succeeds, an entire community is uplifted.
The achievement gap begins before school does. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 46 percent of kids start school without the skills they need to learn. These numbers tell of a cycle of poverty tied to insufficient resources and diminishing support. Locally, only 80 percent of suburban students and approximately 60 percent of Chicago Public School students graduate from high school.
At United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, the belief that a quality education is the foundation of lifelong learning, good health and economic success drives the goal to help 50,000 underperforming middle school students enter high school ready to succeed as part of its LIVE UNITED 2020 community-impact plan. United Way began this work with a $9 million regional investment in two laser-focused strategies; ensure kids 0-5 are ready to succeed in kindergarten and keep middle school students, sixth through eighth grade, on track for high school graduation.
"By focusing on early childhood, children will have the building blocks, through family support and skill attainment, to begin kindergarten poised for lifelong learning," says Richard L. Jones, Ph.D., senior vice president of community investment at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. "Similarly, by enveloping sixth to eighth grade youth in supportive and enriching educational environments at a formative and sometimes challenging developmental period, students will begin high school with the cognitive and social bedrock necessary to graduate."
Of United Way's investment, approximately $4 million is directed toward early childhood learning interventions. These interventions encompass key developmental supports, including high-quality preschool and home visitation services. At one partner non-profit, Christopher House, more than 400 children are directly impacted each day by United Way funding through their Early Childhood Development Services program. This program ensures children develop early literacy skills and are encouraged to explore, problem solve and work with classmates.
Research estimates that for every $1 invested in early childhood programs, communities will see a $14 return on investment in community savings.
An additional $5 million of United Way's investment in education focuses on middle school programming through high-quality "community in school" resources, as research shows a strong correlation between being off track in ninth grade and the likelihood to drop out of school before graduation. This work emphasizes parent engagement in their child's academic life, wraparound social service supports inside schools, and academic reinforcement through out-of-school programs. As part of the Berwyn Community School Initiative, the non-profit organization Youth Crossroads and Freedom Middle School reach out to middle school students. Supported by United Way of DuPage/West Cook and corporate partner OfficeMax, Freedom students are given access to additional after-school activities that help them continue on to high school and ultimately, graduation.
"It is extremely difficult to catch students up once they have fallen behind without a tremendous amount of resources," says Jim Calabrese, principal at Freedom Middle School. "The benefits are nearly endless for our students and in turn, our community."
Along with OfficeMax, Chicago's corporate community is taking note of the crisis in education. Nicor Gas is supporting the Education Initiative through a Challenge Grant, which matches all donations made to the initiative. The ComEd-Exelon-United Way Stay in School Initiative, focusing on middle school and high school students, provides valuable after-school programming to help students advance to the next grade level and graduate. In addition to yielding higher graduation rates, Stay in School improves grades, attendance rates and social behaviors. Other United Way top supporters like Northern Trust, Illinois Tool Works Inc., BMO Financial Group, Bank of America, Microsoft, Deloitte, PWC and UPS are supporting LIVE UNITED 2020.
"Education continues to be a signature focus of our corporate philanthropy strategy. The Stay in School program, with the help of our community partners and our employee volunteers serving as mentors, provides that motivation to succeed," says Steve Solomon, vice president of corporate relations at Exelon, adding they have seven years of positive results in the program.
United Way partners with 48 non-profits to provide the on-the-ground services necessary to reach children and youth in our community. United Way funded programs are working in 72 middle schools throughout the region and 67 early childhood centers.
This year, United Way is launching the first-of-its-kind program in a Chicago community. This pilot will demonstrate the work that can be accomplished when local schools transform into community hubs, connecting not only students, but their families and neighbors with the supports and resources they need to rise out of poverty. As community hubs, these schools will offer a range of coordinated programming that supports the academic success of students and the health and stability of their families. When the community joins United Way and their network of partners, dedicated action can turn into real, measurable results. United Way believes small acts can transform an entire community.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times