By Lisa Early
Municipal leaders are increasingly aware that the learning experiences children have early in life are key predictors of their future academic success and overall well-being. Across the country, mayors are playing a key role in working with educators, philanthropic leaders, service providers and parents to provide all children with the necessary skills to succeed throughout their schooling, and go on to become successful, contributing members of their communities.
An example of successful mayoral and city leadership can be found in Orlando, Florida. The City of Orlando, through its Families, Parks and Recreation Department, has operated youth programs for nearly 50 years, including afterschool and summer programs, free of charge for low-income children. Over 85 percent of the 5,000 children served by Orlando’s program qualify for food stamps, and the city is proud of its long legacy of caring for its lowest income children.
Over the past 10 years, under the leadership of Mayor Buddy Dyer and informed by evidence-based practice and national initiatives, such as the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, Orlando has methodically transformed its afterschool and summer programs to become platforms for supporting the academic achievement of children.
An example of how Orlando supports academic achievement is the establishment of a place-based, cradle-to-career effort in Parramore, Orlando’s lowest income neighborhood. Parramore Kidz Zone has resulted in improved academic performance of children at all grade levels. The program also recently received an AmeriCorps grant, through which student advocates will work in schools and recreation centers in six low income neighborhoods. Finally, the city's Families, Parks and Recreation Department implemented a summer learning loss prevention program in collaboration with Orange County Public Schools – OCPS. The program was offered at eight city recreation centers this summer and served children from 1st through 5th grade.
Called the Summer Reading Program, OCPS deployed 12 highly qualified full-time teachers for a six-week summer reading academy. Through the program, children were engaged in project-based reading activities and, using OCPS’ technology-based instructional tools, they read digital books throughout the six weeks. Data reveals that by the end of the program, 1,248 elementary school children spent over 43,000 minutes reading at city summer camps.
Cities around the country recognize the importance of early childhood literacy and the long-term impact it has on the economy and the overall vibrancy of a city. No one entity can do it alone, and local officials are collaborating with school districts, early childhood education providers and community organizations to develop grade-level reading plans.
Through its Institute for Youth, Education & Families, NLC serves as a partner in the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading by supporting city efforts to boost reading proficiency and to ensure that all children are reading on grade level by the end of third grade. NLC provides communities with technical assistance to close the gap in reading achievement among low-income students and their peers and to raise the bar for reading proficiency so that all students are equipped with the skills needed for success in life and to be competitive in the 21st century marketplace.
Lisa Early is Program Director for the City of Orlando’s Families, Parks and Recreation Department.