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From the Group Up

by Michelle Boyles

A staggering number of children today are not meeting benchmarks for reading proficiency. Research from The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading shows that nearly 70 percent of students are not reading at grade level at the end of third grade, putting them at a significant disadvantage as they try to move forward with their education.

However, a Mount Laurel-based nonprofit is working to change that on a national scale. Foundations is a national organization committed to improving the quality of education for all children by improving schools and school systems, transforming out-of-school time and engaging families and communities in education.

In fact, later this month, The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading will honor Foundations President and CEO, Rhonda H. Lauer as a Grade-Level Reading Champion alongside Oscarwinning actor and founder of the Tallahatchie River Foundation Morgan Freeman among others. South Jersey Magazine spoke with Lauer about her experience in the education field and the group’s work to make sure all children have the skills they need to succeed.

Having worked in the School District of Philadelphia for 30 years, Lauer has firsthand both in school and after school and today, to work with adults who work with children,” she says. “We believe that the most important people in education are your teachers and your school leaders who we work with on a daily basis. We also work with organizations both public and private that work with school leaders, superintendents, teachers and after-school providers.”

So, while they still do operate some after-school programs, the focus is now geared towards training and professional development for after-school supervisors and directors, teachers within school districts as well as in states. “We’re … finding that budget cuts, whether national or local, often don’t allow teachers and school leaders to get the training and professional development that they need. The result of that is not only traumatic, it’s disastrous,” Lauer says.

To do so, Foundations must take into account the needs of each individual community in which it works. You may need to take into account socioeconomic measures, language barriers and all manner of issues. In one case, Lauer found that children weren’t coming to school due to a lack of clean uniforms. She explains, “We really got to understand and sort of change the way we worked because we realized that there may be some common elements and common ground, the standards can be just as high, but the strategies that you use are different. They need to meet the need of the children, the family and the local community.”

Although the group has made a significant impact, there is still much to be done and going forward, Lauer would like to see Foundations become the go-to organization for professional development and technical assistance across the country.

“We have made some progress in this country, but definitely not enough,” she says. “When our kids get to fourth grade and they are not able to read, they are more likely not to graduate high school, more likely not to go to college, more likely not to be able to get a good job at a good wage and more likely to be in the judicial system and in prison. They don’t catch up.

“I’d like to see 99 percent of our kids reading at grade level when they enter fourth grade,” she says. While naysayers may see that as a lofty goal, Lauer says it’s entirely practical. And after she accepts her award, she will go right back to working to do just that.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (June, 2017).
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