A League of Readers: Behind a Big Gift to Boost Literacy

photo: Chinnapong/shutterstock

photo: Chinnapong/shutterstock

A big gift from the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation will go to support the national expansion of Reading League, a nonprofit in Syracuse, New York, dedicated to increasing awareness and adoption among educators of evidence-based techniques to teach reading. Of the $9 million grant from the creator of the American Girl company, $4 million fund expanding the nonprofit’s programs nationally and $5 million will start an endowment.

More than 30 million adults in the United States can’t read or write, according to ProLiteracy, a nonprofit that helps adults learn to read. The problem perpetuates itself. Kids with parents who can’t read proficiently have a higher chance of reading difficulties, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. They’re also more likely to get bad grades, have behavior problems, repeat grades in school or drop out.

Whether or not a kid learns to read at grade level has huge implications for how likely she is to succeed in school and beyond. Many within education are working to figure out how to get more kids reading, and plenty of funders are pitching in. A lot of early childhood education work essentially boils down to early interventions aimed at getting kids reading at grade level by third grade.

Reading League represents another type of intervention with the same end goal—teaching kids to read. The nonprofit focuses on the teachers and other people involved in teaching kids how to read, including school and district administrators, literacy specialists, tutors and even parents.

Pleasant Rowland, the woman behind the gift, is best known as the founder of the American Girl company, famous for its collection of dolls and accompanying book series that depict girlhood through different eras of American history. Rowland, however, started her career as a teacher and even published several manuals on how to teach language arts.

In addition to the the Rowland T. Pleasant Foundation, which she founded shortly after leaving American Girl in 2000, Rowland also started the Rowland Reading Foundation, which is dedicated to improving instruction on reading in elementary schools. Given Rowland’s focus on literacy, Reading League is an apt investment.

The main focus of Reading League is to help more educators become aware of and use evidence-based techniques to teach reading. Maria Murray, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, founded the nonprofit in 2016. She works in the university’s curriculum and instruction department, where she teaches courses on literacy assessment and intervention, so she’s familiar with the research and evidence behind teaching reading.

Lynette Gustaferro, the CEO of Teaching Matters, a nonprofit based in New York City that runs a similar program, says that teaching reading is different and more complex than teaching other skills. Still, it’s a skill that most new educators are least prepared to teach. Nonprofits like Reading League and Teaching Matters work to close that knowledge gap and ensure that kids are learning from teachers who are informed and prepared for the task.

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Right now, Reading League is a regional organization serving about 4,400 educators in central New York, but is growing quickly, Murray says. The nonprofit has an operating budget of about $180,000 a year with only a few paid employees—one part-time director and a coach director who is paid by schools where Reading League sends literacy coaches. Literacy coaches are paid by the schools where they work. The rest of Reading League’s staff is made up of unpaid volunteers, like Murray, though that may change next year.

The $9 million gift from Pleasant Rowland will allow Reading League to expand its reach greatly. Murray says the plan is to hire six full-time staff by the middle of 2019. She also plans to expand nationally by sponsoring local chapters that will take on the work in their communities.

Helping teachers become more effective educators is a strategy that’s been popping up more often among funders lately. This year, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has given to initiatives that provide job training, and even support the social and emotional well-being of teachers.

The James S. McDonnell Foundation, once known for funding scientific research on cognition, put nearly $25 million toward learning more about how teachers learn and change earlier this year. The aim is to better translate education theories into practice by making them easier for educators to learn and incorporate into their work.

Reading League has received support from some local and regional foundations, including the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation, the Central New York Community Foundation, the Gifford Foundation and the Richard Shineman Foundation. However, no other grants match the size, scope or ambition of the Rowland gift.

The gift is also a bit of an outlier for Rowland. Her namesake foundation, which boasts about $55 million in assets, at one time gave anywhere from $10 million to nearly $20 million annually, usually to education, the arts and historic preservation. Lately, the foundation has been much quieter.

According to 2016 tax forms, that year, the foundation did only $365,000 in giving, which went to the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Olbrich Botanical Society. The foundation reported no grantmaking on its 2014 and 2015 forms. The Rowland Reading Foundation has been more active. In 2015, the literacy-focused funder did about $5.1 million in charitable distributions. It reported assets of about $6.9 million.

Does this recent gift to boost literacy spell more to come from Rowland’s giving? Whether or not Rowland plans to rev up her giving, the effect this will have on Reading League’s attempts to expand and scale are undeniable. If the nonprofit is effective, it could make an attractive partner to the funders looking to boost student achievement by first empowering their teachers.