It's going to take a village -- or in this case a diverse, dedicated army from a two-county community -- to help our children succeed in school and graduate, ready to succeed in life.
In May, I told you about the Women's Leadership Council, a United Way of the Lowcountry initiative that aims to improve student reading skills and ultimately decrease school dropout rates in Beaufort and Jasper counties. Our United Way is recruiting an army of 600 local women to volunteer in selected schools to help students raise their reading levels. Two months later, I'm pleased to report that women across the Lowcountry are signing on to be tutors and mentors in the fall when the program begins.
"Everyone is saying yes," said Jill Briggs, United Way of the Lowcountry's executive vice president. She has been speaking at community group meetings and gatherings in private homes, telling the story of our local United Way's Education Impact Initiative. The Women's Leadership Council program is a visible and proactive arm of that initiative, which is a new focus of United Way of the Lowcountry for the next decade.
About 39 percent of Beaufort County students and 35 percent of Jasper County students do not graduate from high school on time. By 2022, United Way aims to cut current dropout rates in half by ensuring that 80 percent of fourth-graders are reading at grade level. To reach these goals, the education initiative will focus on four key elements:
1. Engage students in learning while in school.
2. Improve family literacy.
3. Connect students with resources outside of school.
4. Build stronger community systems to support children, youth and families.
The Women's Leadership Council is working on elements 1 and 4, along with educators, community members and other groups. Elements 2 and 3 will be addressed by concentric circles (with literacy at the core) that move outward to incorporate a focus on the child, student, teachers, leadership, family units and community.
"The initiative includes the wrap-around services families need for kids to be successful," United Way of the Lowcountry President Clarece Walker said. "This involves United Way agencies like Consumer Credit Counseling, Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry and the Ronald McDonald dental van among others -- so many have a role to play."
It sounds complicated, and it is.
"We are looking for large-scale change, and that can only come from a complex system of coordination -- not from isolated efforts of individual groups," Briggs said.
United Way and community partners from the public and private sectors will mobilize volunteers based on a community awareness and outreach plan for reaching the Education Impact Initiative goals.
United Way staff members will lead community-action teams to work on the four elements of the Education Impact Initiative plan, and United Way of the Lowcountry will provide technical help and support along with oversight and financial support.
"The steering committee includes experts in education and community members with a passion for education, including the chief academic officers from both school districts, professors of literacy, literacy specialists and tutoring service providers, among others," Briggs said.
This initiative is the most ambitious effort yet by a United Way organization that has been convening partnerships and inspiring collaborations for almost 30 years, since Walker took the helm as president in the early 1990s. The Education Impact Initiative takes to its ultimate level our local United Way's philosophy of leveraging donor gifts to get the most impact from every contributed dollar.
For more information on the initiative or to learn how you can help launch United Way's effort in our schools this fall, call Clarece Walker, Lesley Holladay or Jill Briggs at 843-982-3040.
Marge Barber is a retired journalist, community volunteer and former director of communications for United Way of the Lowcountry.