It all started with some startling data: After the 2013-14 school year, 43 percent of third-graders in San Mateo County schools couldn't read proficiently. That number rose to 65 percent for the county's Latino, African-American and Pacific Islander third-graders.
Reading proficiency at the third grade level is widely accepted as a predictor of a student's future success. That's because after third grade, classroom teachers generally assume kids can read, and switch teaching modes from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."
Those who can't read well by then go from being behind in only reading to trailing their classmates in all other class subjects, since text becomes one of the primary ways information in other disciplines is transmitted.
A longitudinal study released in 2011 and commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation – a private foundation focused on improving American kids' well-being – found that one in four low-income kids who didn't read at grade level in third grade didn't graduate from high school on time.
Faced with those statistics, the Peninsula Partnership Leadership Council, a coalition of public and private organizations dedicated to improving kids' well-being, led by San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell, San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom, and Silicon Valley Community Foundation Chief Community Impact Officer Erica Wood, went to work to tackle the problem.
From research, they learned that there are four types of actions that make a difference in improving reading outcomes in early education and elementary school: engaging parents in their kids' learning, making sure kids don't miss school, preparing kids well for kindergarten, and preventing kids from backsliding on their learning gains during summer.
They developed a bold, ambitious plan, called the Big Lift, to put in place all four actions at once at school districts struggling with reading scores, and then see what happens, tracking outcomes with rigorous data collection and analysis.
The goal: to get 80 percent of third-graders in participating school districts reading at grade level in five years.
Enacting the plan, however, came with a price tag. In 2015, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors put $15 million of Measure A funds (now Measure K) toward the project.
Around that time, the coalition also successfully applied for a competitive federal grant from the Social Innovation Fund, an Obama administration program. It was awarded what was expected to be $16.5 million grant, with an initial $7.5 million contribution and the remainder to be offered on a conditional basis.
The initiative started its first cohort in the 2015-16 school year with preschoolers in four county districts: Cabrillo Unified, La Honda-Pescadero Unified, Jefferson Elementary and South San Francisco Unified. The next year, it added three more districts: Ravenswood City, Redwood City and San Bruno Park.
Unexpected funding loss
Then, following the 2016 elections, the the initiative's funding from the Social Innovation Fund was cut by the Trump administration.
Reeling from the loss of that $9 million in conditional funding, the county, the education office and the community foundation sprang into action.
Some cuts were made to the program its annual operating budget is now about $8 million, from $12 million, Groom said and the initiative continues to partner with state-funded preschools to stretch public dollars.
San Mateo County continues to be the dominant funder, but other public and private donors have also stepped up, including First Five San Mateo County, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, Silicon Valley Social Venture, and Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, among others. The roster of supporting organizations numbers over 100.
"We've been working very hard to bring in new funding," Groom said in an interview, noting that she, Campbell and Wood have been doing a lot of the fundraising themselves.
To date, the Big Lift is the only program in the country to apply all four such interventions at once, Groom said, citing the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But there's a lag: The coalition won't know for sure if its efforts are fulfilling its ultimate goal until 2020, when the first cohort of students who were tracked starting in preschool finishes third grade and takes the state English test to determine grade level reading proficiency.
However, there are promising signs, both factual and anecdotal, that indicate the program is having an effect.
"We're continuously looking at data," explained Diana Harlick, a Big Lift coordinator in the San Mateo County Office of Education. "We're seeing really promising early results."
Ravenswood district programs
State test results from 2017 indicate that few Ravenswood City School District third-graders are reading proficiently: About 85 percent did not meet grade-level reading standards.
In that district, the program is working with two preschools, and running summer programs for incoming kindergartners, according to Diana Harlick in the county Office of Education. The two preschools it works with are the Belle Haven Child Development Center in Menlo Park and the Institute for Human and Social Development, a Head Start program in East Palo Alto, she said.
The Big Lift provides resources to some preschools in the districts it has partnered with to help children be ready for kindergarten by improving preschool quality. The county provides extra funding to reduce the ratio of students to teachers, and provide individualized coaching for teachers.
Gaby Gutierrez, a teacher at the Belle Haven Child Development Center, said the coach who has come into her classroom has provided helpful guidance and modeled good teaching practices. Handwritten, colorful posters on her classroom wall list the many learning standards the students are expected to master. Teaching happens throughout the day, in between the nearly four hours of free play time a day the state mandates that children must receive.
To promote early literacy for her students, Gutierrez says she reads stories in English and Spanish and asks her students questions to gauge comprehension.
In addition to bolstered learning opportunties, kids are given meals and snacks throughout the day and opportunities for screening for vision and developmental problems, according to Andrea Jones, Big Lift officer at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
Both the preschools and the students enrolled are subjected to standardized analysis. The Belle Haven preschool, after two years of support from the Big Lift, has improved its overall rating from what's called a "Tier 3" to a "Tier 5" school, according to Carmen Lo, the center's director. Tier 5 is the top rating given to early childhood education centers.
The county has also adopted a standard kindergarten readiness assessment. It is, Harlick said, "the first time ever we have valid data on what kindergarten students look like when they walk through the door."
That, combined with a system to track outcomes of Big Lift students through preschool to elementary school, gives the county a way to compare Big Lift students with students who don't participate in the program. Those results are then sent to an external evaluator.
Analysing this data, Harlick said, "we are seeing incremental improvement every year," she said.
Parents and attendance
Because the school works with low-income families in an extremely high cost-of-living area, getting parents who work multiple jobs and long hours to attend evening workshops has been a challenge in the past, Lo said. However, through her own initiative and efforts supported by the Big Lift, the center has seen significant increases in parent involvement in recent months. The last meeting had 19 parents in attendance, up from fewer than eight. The workshop featured an interactive discussion of different learning styles, she said.
Through the Big Lift, students at the Belle Haven center are also sent home weekly with "book bags" containing bilingual reading materials for kids to read with their parents.
At the Belle Haven center, the school also recently hired a family engagement specialist to help connect the school's families with services they may be able to benefit from. For instance, the specialist recently helped a family fill out the paperwork to apply for MediCal, Lo said.
Under the direction of the Big Lift, the center has also launched a Parent Advisory Committee.
To reduce chronic absenteeism, parents at participating Big Lift programs are mailed friendly postcard reminders. Jones pointed to a May 2017 study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that found that by mailing notes reminding families that attendance can affect students' learning, and reporting how many days the children had missed, chronic absenteeism decreased by 15 percent.
The idea is to promote good attendance early on: Kids who skip preschool are more likely to have attendance problems later, when being in the classroom becomes more integral to learning, Lo explained.
One of the key concerns in early literacy programs is the problem of "summer slide" – a term to describe the academic regression that happens when kids forget what they've learned during the school year if it's not reinforced during summer months. Studies show that "summer slide" more often impacts kids in low-income households.
In the Ravenswood school district, almost 100 rising kindergarten students participated in the Big Lift's "Inspiring Summers" program this year, a full-day summer program that prepares kids for kindergarten. For older students, similar summer programs are already offered, Harlick said. In other school districts, the Big Lift runs summer programs for students beyond kindergarten to prevent "summer slide."
Ravenswood school district Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff told The Almanac that the Big Lift is a "huge support" to students who are learning English and whose primary language is English. "Through the program we are able to determine students' academic and social-emotional needs before they start school. We love this program and hope it will continue to be funded."
A study by the organization BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) found that during the summer of 2017, children enrolled in the program gained on average 1.5 months of learning, and were kept from losing two months of learning, for a net gain of 3.5 months.
Despite the reported successes of the program, a grand jury report released in August found that the initiative faces an $11.4 million funding shortage through 2020.
While initiative leaders are not holding out hope of the lost federal grant funding being restored, Harlick said, there's a growing consensus among politicians and policymakers about the benefits of early childhood education. "We're certainly hopeful there'll be greater public investments over the next few years," she said.
What happens if the ambitious project doesn't achieve its stated goals? Both Campbell and Groom were confident the goal could be achieved.
"I think it is going to be successful," Groom told The Almanac.
The bigger question is how to financially sustain the initiative into the future.
One potential funding source could be to take the matter to voters, Campbell said, adding that after the pilot, "if we show proof of concept – which I fully expect we can ... – then we need to go to voters and say, 'We're dealing with the county's most vulnerable at-risk kids. ... It's a good investment over the long haul.'"
Many of the families the program serves in the Ravenswood district are in "dire economic straits," may be experiencing overcrowding or housing insecurity at home, may be undocumented, and may struggle to have enough food or access to health care, Campbell noted. Getting kids into safe preschool environments and supplying them with services can give them a better chance of overcoming obstacles, she said.
According to Jones, the Big Lift initiative helped 202 kids receive preschool services in the Ravenswood district in the 2016-17 school year. Of those students, the average family income was $24,237 a year, and 96 percent came from families earning incomes under $50,000 a year. Ninety-four percent of their mothers had a high school education or less; 92 percent were Hispanic or Latino; and 79 percent had a primary home language of Spanish.
Campbell pointed to a study by economist James Heckman, who asserts that high-quality educational programs for disadvantaged kids from birth to 5 can deliver a 13 percent per year return on investment for the community in that they help kids attain more education, better health, and higher income later in life.
"From an economic perspective, we're shooting ourselves in the foot if we're not investing in the youngest, because the economic outcome is so great," Campbell said. "For it to be sustainable over time, we've got to have public dollars coming into it."
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story indicated that the summer learning study findings were made by the RAND Corporation. The study was by BELL.