Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

February 2015 marked the public launch of Read Charlotte — an ambitious $5.5 million initiative to double the percentage of third graders in North Carolina’s largest city who read proficiently — from 40 percent to 80 percent by 2025.

Read Charlotte, in turn, marks the reboot of the community’s grade-level reading campaign, begun in 2012. Infusing the campaign with new leadership, support, focus and energy took a year, starting with a gathering of corporate, philanthropic, civic and education leaders.

“The group said ‘Yes, we see the problem. Yes, we agree we can do better. But we don’t want to just get together and produce another study,’” says Johanna Edens Anderson, executive director of The Belk Foundation, based in Charlotte, which convened the gathering. “They were tired of studies sitting on shelves. We changed our ‘study team’ to an ‘action team.’ Amazing what one word will do.”

During five structured meetings over six months, the team — including leaders from 14 of Charlotte’s top companies and organizations — designed Read Charlotte, which has since secured $4.85 million from nine lead funders making multiyear commitments: Bank of America, The Belk Foundation, CD Spangler Foundation, The Duke Endowment, Duke Energy, Foundation For The Carolinas, PNC Foundation, PwC Charitable Foundation and Wells Fargo.

In-kind support is coming from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, the county library and the University of North Carolina–Charlotte’s College of Education.

The team also pledged to start at birth, invest only in proven programs and focus on four areas pegged to a stage in a young child’s life affecting reading proficiency: promoting early childhood language development; supporting school readiness by expanding quality child care and pre-K; supporting teachers and classrooms; and summer learning.

Factors contributing to the successful reboot include: 

  • A sense of urgency, driven by a new state policy to potentially retain third graders who do not score sufficiently on new and tougher tests. “There was a real fire, a timeliness we didn’t have a couple years prior,” says Anderson. “Third-grade reading scores were not looking good, and yet we knew the problem doesn’t start in third grade.”  
  • A community history of public/private partnerships, leadership from The Belk Foundation, commitment from key leaders and input from focus groups involving over 100 educators, parents and service providers. “With any collective impact effort, you have to balance a sense of urgency and keeping leaders at the table with being informed about what’s happening on the ground,” says Anderson. 
  • An emphasis on designing a structurally sound, lasting campaign “so people pay attention, stay committed and see it through,” says Anderson, rather than solely focusing on developing the campaign’s content. 
  • A mindfulness about best using leaders’ limited time. “We set a very clear expectation about their commitment, the decisions to make and gave them fairly developed ‘straw men’ at each meeting for their input,” says Anderson. 
  • A careful design process with follow-up research after each meeting, getting resources from the GLR Campaign, community focus group feedback and “gut checks” from a small subset of the action team. 

With a goal, structure, budget and funding components in place, Read Charlotte turned to branding, fundraising and preparing for the launch, which garnered impressive local media coverage. Many action team members also remain involved as governing board members. “Their continued leadership was important to give this the prominence and influence it needs,” says Anderson.

Next up: Hiring an executive director to oversee a small staff, developing baseline data to track progress and creating working groups of experts and community members for each focus area. More than 100 people have applied for the workgroups — an encouraging sign. “For this to really live in the community, full public involvement starts now,” says Anderson. “If we don’t have grandmothers turning to mothers in supermarkets and saying 'You should be talking to your baby,' we’re not going to get the traction we need.” 

For more information, contact Johanna Edens Anderson at 704-426-8396 or johanna@belkfoundation.org. Photos: Read Charlotte; Publication Date: Spring 2015. To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net.

Share your experience with your GLR community in the comments box!  

Want more? Check out:  

  • How the Roanoke Virginia GLR campaign is using the Results Scorecard.
  • How Sarasota Florida is partnering to build a strong GLR campaign.

Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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Comments

  • Thank you, everyone, for your words of encouragement! As you well know, the hard work is really just beginning, but we are thrilled to have a strong start to get us going.
    • It's great to have your voice as part of this conversation. Thank you for responding to the questions posed!
  • Congrats to the Community of Charlotte! It sounds like you have started to lay a strong foundation. Best wishes in your Executive Director search and turning the page to data collection. Looking forward to hearing updates!
  • Thank you for sharing the Charlotte story so far. I especially like how you gave the leadership team "straw men" to facilitate decision-making. You mention that the workgroups are forming. How is that going? How often are groups meeting?

    And of course, given the time of year, my mind turns to summer. What does the Summer Learning Workgroup have in mind for Summer Learning Day on June 19th?
    • Hi Susanne. Thanks for the good questions. When we announced the effort back in February, we also announced an open application process for work groups. There is an online application on our website (www.readcharlotte.org) and we have received over 150 responses so far! The new director will have the daunting task of curating these groups, which we hope will have a good, diverse representation of stakeholders, from parents to educators to nonprofit professionals. We hope these groups will be up an running in the next couple months.
      • That online application idea is a good one! Very open to the community and a smart strategy to get new faces around the table. Thank you for sharing.
        • I agree with Susanne about the online application. It's very welcoming, quick and easy to fill out, and a great way to engage people who might not otherwise be asked to participate.
  • As a Charlotte native (my whole family still lives there!), I was thrilled to be able to attend the Read Charlotte launch in February. It was amazing to see so many leaders in Charlotte who have pledged their time and resources to this effort, but I also especially like the work group model that Read Charlotte is using. I think it will bring a diverse set of voices and experiences to the work, and I look forward to hearing more as the work progresses.
  • What an inspiring story. I'm really impressed by the thoughtfulness of the approach. I know there was also careful and strategic work done to raise sufficient funding to provide real traction for the next several years. I love the action orientation. We'll look forward to great results!
  • Great leadership by Johanna and wonderful efforts by all. Can't wait to see you reach your goal!
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