The Learning Alliance told a crowd of educators, volunteers, community leaders and philanthropists a story during the nonprofit's annual gala at the Vero Beach Museum of Art recently -- the story of how “The Power of the Community's Moonshot Story to Change the World” is unfolding right here in Indian River County through the collaborative efforts of literacy proponents.
As guests entered the museum, they were greeted by storybook characters from the Indian River Charter High School Theater Department. Dorothy and the Scarecrow pointed the way to “the Yellow Brick Road;” Alice and the Mad Hatter ushered attendees along so they wouldn't be “late for a very important date,” and Mary Poppins offered up “a spoonful of sugar.”
Lady Literacy reigned supreme over these storybook characters along with several other classic favorites. The theme of the evening focused on how stories shape lives. The Learning Alliance Chairman Ray Oglethorpe shared his story and how education was the mitigating factor in the direction his life took. Instead of farming, working in the coal mines or playing the accordion at the local VFW Hall, the former president of America Online was able to set his sights elsewhere.
“Education gave me everything. It made me who I am. That's why I'm so passionate about making every child succeed in this world,” shared Oglethorpe.
While working with their own young children to overcome reading difficulties, Alliance co-founders Barbara Hammond and Liz Woody-Remington discovered they weren't alone and that student achievement was being stymied by limited resources and a lack of professional development opportunities for educators.
Studies showed that only 35 percent of the nation's third-graders were reading proficiently. Motivated by these staggering numbers, Oglethorpe, Hammond, and Woody-Remington formed the grassroots literacy initiative and partnered with Indian River County Schools to pursue the Moonshot Moment goal of having 90 percent of third-graders reading at grade level by 2018.
“Eight years ago we started this journey, and 2018 was our mission destination. We had big dreams,” recalled Hammond as she introduced a series of videos highlighting the gains local readers have made. “We discovered that to create transformational change, we needed to do it as a community.”
The framework The Learning Alliance has built since their “story” began has resulted in impressive literacy growth, garnering national recognition. This community-based partnership has netted great gains by working to close the student achievement poverty gap, providing extended learning time through after-school and summer programs, and providing crucial professional development to teachers.
Looking at Indian River Academy's success as a model for potential growth opportunities, 95 percent of the students live at or below poverty level; and the school was the worst performer in the district. At the end of this school year, scores are expected to reveal 77 percent literacy achievement, which is double that of the school's test score history.
“For the first time in a long, long while we have no F-rated schools in the school district,” shared Oglethorpe. “We have the highest literacy scores ever in the history of the district; six schools improved their letter grades, and two former F schools became C+ and D- schools.”
Impressive progress given the Indian River County School District is considered to be one of the poorest in the state of Florida, with 68 percent of third-graders receiving free and reduced lunch and schools attempting to provide a stable environment for a population with a student turnover rate of more than 35 percent. Students who attended Moonshot Academies and summer programs showed literacy gains of 57 percent compared to non-Moonshot Academy students.
“We are really onto something here in Vero Beach. This story is real, is continuing to grow; and Indian River County is going to become a model for this nation,” noted Oglethorpe. “If we can get these kids feeling safe, secure and ready to learn, fantastic results can come about. It's not a question of kids can't; it's a question that kids can if we give them the right support, help and guidance to do this stuff.”
Access to professional development opportunities for educators has played a significant role in gains made during the past eight years, according to Woody-Remington. “It has been an honor and a privilege to work with these teachers. They have an unprecedented talent and have participated in professional development that has been transformative. It is because of the partnership between The Learning Alliance, the district and the schools that we have been able to come together and really create change and innovation.”
Tyler Ginn, a 14-year-old Freshman Learning Center student, told the audience that when he was in the third grade, trying to read was “like trying to learn something that makes no sense.”
As a struggling reader he felt utterly alone, but after participating in a pilot program offered by The Learning Alliance, Ginn said, “I could finally understand what I was reading. I wasn't afraid to go to school anymore. It felt like I actually finally fit in.”
His mother Shelby Ginn confided, “Without the extra help that Tyler received from The Learning Alliance, I don't know where we would be today. I credit The Learning Alliance in saving my son's life.”
“Since I came here in 1985, we've seen a great art museum; we've seen a wonderful cultural center at Riverside Theatre; and with the Cleveland Clinic coming in, we're going to have a world-class medical facility. Now I think it's in our grasp as we become a model for the nation and also have a world-class public education system,” announced Oglethorpe.
To celebrate their success and with a promise to continue changing the lives of children through literacy, “one story at a time,” Oglethorpe along with the help of a brass band led the crowd out of the museum with parasols and Moonshot handkerchiefs waving in the air in a New Orleans-style Second Line parade.
“In 2010 The Learning Alliance set the Moonshot goal, and even though we didn't quite make the goal, we've had a lot of successes,” announce Oglethorpe.