Long Beach, California
The Campaign For Grade Level Reading story in Long Beach, California can be best summed up by the quote, “Your spark can become a flame and change everything.” – E.D. Nixon.
There are two main ways to spread the flame of change throughout a city, from the top down, or from the bottom up. In many cities across the country, mayors’ offices, superintendents and city councils are leading the charge by changing policies and granting resources to help move the campaign forward.
In Long Beach, we are caught in the middle of major political changes that are occupying our leaders’ attention and time: the early adoption of common core in our school district and a citywide election in April, which will replace our mayor and five of our nine council district seats.
In the midst of all this “noise,” we have found that the spark for this Campaign is catching on quickest at a grassroots level, person to person. We’ve found that by presenting our story to service and community groups throughout the city, we have been able to see the flames spread and inspire private individuals to pick up the cause and run with it. For us, this has been a fairly inexpensive way to start making real citywide progress encouraging true leadership to emerge from the bottom up.
Our best partners have been “regular citizens” who care about the future of our community: community activists, nonprofits leaders, the Rotary Club of Long Beach, the Rotoract Club for young professionals, parents, neighborhood organizations and volunteers.
Citizens have begun to spread the word, and the flame of our story is catching on, with more and more people carrying the messages forward into wider and wider circles. Our proudest accomplishments have been:
Library Budget Advocacy – September, 2013
Using key messages from the Campaign, citizens advocated for additional city library budget money and were able to secure $400,000 more for books, materials and library community rooms.
Great Sandcastle Contest – August, 2013
Our local Rotoract club selected literacy as the theme of this summer’s 81st Sand sculpture contest. Professional sculptors came and created literacy inspired sculptures, and proceeds benefitted the Long Beach Public Library Foundation. More than 10,000 people visited the beach and the key literacy messages were picked up by four news stations.
AOC-7 Literacy Fair- May, 2013
A neighborhood group of parents and teachers created a literacy fair in a local park and collected and distributed more than 5,000 gently used books. This will now be an annual event, and is a template for other neighborhoods to do the same.
Rotary Literacy Easter Egg Festival – April, 2013
Rotarians added a literacy component to their annual Easter Egg hunt, stuffing plastic eggs with coupons for books, instead of just candy. Held in a very low-income area, the books were a huge hit and children treated those eggs as though they held the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket! Rotarians also hosted a reading area which was very popular.
Neighborhood Book Swaps – Ongoing
We have found that private foundations who give in our geographical area, are interested in the Campaign and our work as a lead convener is attracting attention and opening new funding possibilities. The Campaign is also helping us approach our Library program priorities more strategically. We are focused on how our library in particular can focus support on Early Learning and Summer Reading.
It hasn’t all been a rosy picture. The more stones we turn over, the more dismaying news we seem to find. The need is so much greater than we realized. We are surprised by the lack of literacy service providers in our city which has nearly a half million people. We are frustrated by leaders who sign on to our efforts “in name only” but are more concerned about what’s in it for them than the heart of the work we need to do. We are worried about the children in school right now who are caught in the middle of the slow process of change and falling into gaps of bureaucracy and budget cuts. Our school libraries are only open two days a week, we have no summer school, and our public library hours have been cutback. It's easy to become overwhelmed and concerned that our efforts aren’t at a high enough level or systematic enough.
That said, we are inspired by the number of people who want to help children in our city improve their reading skills, and the thousands of children who desperately want that help. Now our job is to break down the bureaucratic barriers and inefficient systems that are keeping those two groups from working together. One potential volunteer recently said, “I’ve never encountered a city that is so void of opportunities to volunteer in the field of literacy.” She was about to sign up to help volunteer in another nearby city, when luckily she heard about the Campaign efforts in Long Beach. She is now one of the people helping to create the citywide volunteer reading program in Long Beach.
Some exciting projects still in progress:
Pre- Planning Literacy and Education Forum – October, 2013
Our assistant superintendent just signed on to attend a forum of our key city leaders to discuss the goals of the Campaign and the role of the library and other education providers.
Early Childhood Education Council Citywide Meeting – October, 2013
California Library Association (CLA) Conference in Long Beach – November, 2013
Citywide Literacy Forum – Spring, 2014
“Sharing Reading” Citywide Volunteer Program Development
A skeptical newscaster recently asked, “Do you really think book-themed sandcastles will help third grade literacy rates?” Our answer is maybe not directly, but it raises awareness. We are building a platform to spread the word that there is a desperate literacy need in our city. Igniting the people’s passion is the first step. That is what our first year is focused on. We are spreading the word and building a team of individuals who are passionate about helping Long Beach kids read by third grade. After all, as Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”