Alfreida Colvin leads an elementary school that encourages reading every way it can.
So when the United Way called and offered to donate a reading nook, books that students could keep and access to an entertaining reading website, the Fort Worth principal jumped at the chance.
The United Way’s new early reading program, Club Connect Adopt-a-School, rolled out nationwide this week after being tested in Fort Worth, Miami and New Orleans. It’s the first time the nation’s largest charity has adopted high-poverty schools across the country.
Colvin said her school, Harlean Beal Elementary, was short on space, except for one cubbyhole next to her office where she previously let parents sit and browse PTA newsletters.
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She asked custodians to make a little curtain for a door, and the United Way brought in colorful beanbag chairs and a rocking chair. Scholastic, the children’s publisher, contributed books. Someone added a big plush lion.
“They’re using it, and it is awesome,” Colvin said.
Parents read to children on the days they have lunch at school together. Preschoolers use it during an after-school program. Young readers curl up in the beanbags.
The creator of the United Way program, Bill O’Dowd, brings years of experience in TV, film and digital programming for young viewers. O’Dowd is chief executive and president of Dolphin Entertainment, Dolphin Digital Media and Dolphin Films. His TV credits include being executive producer of Nickelodeon’s teen drama series Zoey 101.
“What makes this so unique is it’s a partnership between the United Way and the National Association of Elementary School Principals and Scholastic,” O’Dowd said. “They’ve come together to design what principals think will do the most to help them get every kid to read.”
O’Dowd’s philanthropic and global volunteer work for the United Way led to several years of developing Club Connect and the “Reading Oasis,” as the nooks are known. He said the work is part of a trend in philanthropy to attempt sweeping changes in society. The United Way decided to focus on teen pregnancy, prisons and crime, and high school dropouts.
It has long been known that high school graduation improves the odds of a better life, O’Dowd said. Research shows that reading by third grade is crucial for later school success because that’s when reading instruction ends and the need to read to learn begins, he said.
Students left behind
It’s no secret that many students are behind.
The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 32 percent of boys and 38 percent of girls were reading proficiently in fourth grade.
O’Dowd said he traveled to meet principals in many states. The message he got was that they wanted help to keep children reading after school, on the weekends and during summer.
The new program was designed for the nation’s poorest schools — those that receive federal aid for disadvantaged students — to give them books and other resources they don’t otherwise have at home.
Parents register their children to use the website, which promotes reading through games and the presence of celebrities to read books. The United Way sends the parents emails about the importance of reading, as well as coupons from corporate partners “to encourage and reward them,” O’Dowd said.
The website is designed to work on mobile phones because many families don’t have computers but just about everyone has a phone, he said.
Club Connect has the potential to expand because of the size of its backers. O’Dowd said the cost is about $10,000 per school. Funding would depend on a decision by local United Way donors.
Fort Worth program
The Fort Worth donors included Pier 1 Imports, Basic Energy Services, and several foundations and families, said Emily Furney, vice president for community development of United Way of Tarrant County.
“There’s definitely a great need in Tarrant County, and we’d love to be able to provide these resources for all of our schools,” she said.
Nine schools in the county were among the 15 where the idea was tested in the past year.
Besides Harlean Beal Elementary, some of the other local schools were Bellaire Elementary, Lowery Road Elementary, Morningside Elementary, Como Elementary and Daggett Middle.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.