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United Way pitches in

United Way, located at 2059 Atwood Avenue in Madison, works with children of all ages through its education branch. Photo by Jennifer Gragg, Madison Commons.

When students struggle in school, it doesn’t start all at once. Problems can arise at different ages for different children, so United Way of Dane County is working to help children from birth until graduation.

The education branch of United Way began in 1995 prompted by the Schools of Hope civic journalism project. United Way works with multiple organizations including  everything from the Schools of Hope tutoring program to the Madison school district itself. There are currently 120 individually funded programs.

The Born Learning Mobilization Plan began in 2007 and prepares children for kindergarten. Children’s brains develop rapidly before they turn three and missing any stimulation can become a big problem later in life.

“We know there are gaps that exist as early as 18 months,” says Born Learning Director Lauren Martin. “Kids growing up in poverty have heard 30 million fewer words by the time they reach kindergarten than families who are not living in poverty. So if we wait until school starts, we’ve missed a lot of the critical building blocks of early development.”

By 2020, Born Learning hopes to prepare 80 percent of children for kindergarten.

The Play and Learn program helps reach this goal. The play group offers 40 sessions in 25 different locations. They take place in schools, malls and other accessible areas of the community. Children under the age of five can participate as long as a parent stays with them.

“They look like a place where you could drop your child off and have the staff babysit, but that’s not it at all,” says Deedra Atkinson, the Executive Vice President of Community Impact and Strategy. “Play and Learn is designed to work with the parent.”

During the session, the parents learn how to play with their child in ways that promote development. These include activities such as pretend play and reading. The structured group time at the end of the session also plays a large role in development.

“It’s very important for kids to have some regulatory skills such as being able to sit in a classroom or follow directions,” says Martin. “Experts in the field say that those kinds of things are actually as important, if not more so, than knowing those letters and numbers when you enter kindergarten.”

Briony MacPhee works as the Director of Academic Success at United Way. Photo by Jennifer Gragg, Madison Commons.

Born Learning also works with three home visitation programs. The most rigorous program, The Parent Child Home program, works for two years with children between the ages of two and four. The program member meets with the family twice a week, and the kids get a new toy or book to work with every week.

“In the first visit, the home visitor models how to work with the child and what the key learnings are, and in the second one they’re checking in and seeing how it’s going and watching how the parent is interacting with the child,” says Martin.

After kindergarten, United Way focuses on two major goals. Students should be literate by 3rd grade and complete algebra by 10th grade. These specific grades and subjects were chosen deliberately.

“Based on how a child’s brain changes through time, children learn to read by third grade, and then beyond third grade they read to learn,” says Atkinson. “So it was clear to us that if children weren’t proficient at reading by third grade, they were going to struggle.”

To meet this goal, United Way collaborates with literacy tutors from the elementary Schools of Hope program. Schools of Hope, like United Way’s education branch, grew out of the 1995 civic journalism movement in Madison. The tutoring occurs in the schools and primarily focuses on one on one or small group interactions.

Lauren Martin works as the Director of Born Learning at United Way. Photo courtesy of United Way of Dane County.

“The literacy tutors work with students on the skills of word retell and recognizing words on the page,” says Academic Success Director Briony MacPhee. “It’s about being able to do the skills that are the core building blocks of reading.”

A 2012 evaluation of the program by Dr. Annalee Good of the UW Madison School of Education showed promising results. Teacher surveys indicated that 94 percent of teachers saw advancements in children’s reading skills.

Achievement Connections handles the algebra tutoring. This program is run out of the Morgridge Center for Public Service at UW-Madison.

“The idea behind algebra completion by 10th grade is that Madison now requires math to graduate from high school,” says MacPhee. “Algebra is also important for critical thinking. There’s even a connection between success in algebra and higher paying jobs.”

The STAR Math assessment, a test given by the Renaissance Learning company, showed increased math skills for the 2012-2013 school year in 69 percent of students.

United Way’s impact continues expanding. Learning losses occur more frequently for students living in poverty. So United Way began a summer reading program in 2014. By the end, 70 percent of children in the program retained or even enhanced their literacy skills. But United Way has its eye on a larger prize.

“We’re looking for ways to duplicate this program and expand this program in Dane County,” says Atkinson.

Given its scope, United Way will be more than ready to take on this new challenge.

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