United Way of Metropolitan Dallas looks to fill the education gap in North Texas

by Terry Wagner, Special Contributor | January 28, 2019

Rowena Sosa knew her son Emmanuel didn’t like to read. Not only was the Dallas second-grader already behind at the start of the school year — he was also at risk of having to repeat the grade if his reading skills didn’t improve. “At first, he didn’t want to read at all.  It was hard getting him to read,” Rowena acknowledges.

Sadly, Emmanuel’s case is not unusual. 53 percent of North Texas’ third-graders are reading below grade level. This statistic is worrisome for a number of reasons.

Experts have determined that Grade 3 reading proficiency is the single most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Students not reading at grade level by then are four times more likely to drop out of school. This choice often relegates those individuals to a lifetime of low-wage jobs. Worse, it makes them three times more likely to be incarcerated.

Fortunately, Sosa found Reading Partners, a weekly program funded in part by United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. This program connects students with reading mentors who work with them one-on-one, imparting the skills and encouragement those children need to keep on the path to graduation.

Since Emmanuel began meeting with his mentor Shelly Wilfong, he’s worked through 39 different lessons, grown confident, acquired a love of learning and joined tens of thousands of other young North Texans who have dramatically increased their chances of enjoying lifelong success.

Creating Lasting Change

For over 90 years, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas has leveraged the power of unity to get long-term results for North Texas.

“United Way is a unifying force for addressing some of our community’s most intractable challenges — by the community and in the community,” says Jennifer Sampson, McDermott-Templeton President and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. “Lasting change happens when we work together.”

The organization focuses much of its solutions-oriented work on three fundamental issues: education, income and health. As Sampson explains, these are “the building blocks of opportunity that every individual needs to reach their full potential, and that every family and community needs to thrive.”

Research shows that 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life. Children who lack high-quality learning experiences in those years are often two to three years behind their peers when entering kindergarten.

“Right now, less than half of local 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool in Dallas County,” says Susan Hoff, United Way Chief Strategy, Impact and Operations Officer. “And 61 percent of low-income families have no books in the home that are suitable for a child. So United Way invests in programs that give at-risk students and families the tools and resources they need to succeed.”

As always, United Way has set ambitious long-term goals. By 2020, they aim to have 60 percent of area students graduate and prepared to succeed in college or in a career. The current figure stands at 42 percent, but progress is already underway.

Last year, the organization invested $3.7 million in Strong Start programs that help children up to age 5 prepare for preschool, kindergarten and early grades. As a result, 16,000 participants were rated kindergarten-ready.

What’s more, United Way spent $3.4 million on academic achievement programs that tutor, mentor, improve language skills and spark interest in STEM subjects. 72 percent of participants in these initiatives have improved their reading levels.

Last year, United Way invested $7.1 million in Strong Start and Academic Achievement programs.

$3.7 million funded programs that help children up to age 5 prepare for preschool, kindergarten and early grades.16,000 participants were rated kindergarten-ready.

$3.4 million funded programs that tutor, mentor, improve language skills and spark interest in STEM subjects. 72 percent of participants improved their reading levels.

Providing The Best Start

At the local level, United Way supports a variety of programs that help give children the best possible start.

For example, First Five, a United Way partnership with PepsiCo, provides high-quality preschool to more than 250 children in Southern Dallas. Its dual-generational approach also benefits single mothers, who can enter or return to the workforce once they have affordable childcare in place.

Smart Start Texas — a partnership between United Way, KERA and Commit — gives busy parents the tools they need to be confident first teachers for their child. This free text service delivers quality child development information directly to parents’ phones, covering topics such as early literacy, math, social-emotional development and other skills children need to succeed in preschool, kindergarten and beyond. In 2018, more than 2,100 North Texas parents enrolled, ultimately serving 2,350 children.

United Way also provides in-school, afterschool and summer programs to inspire North Texas students of all ages. Tackle Summer Slide, a program that helps prevent low-income students from losing an average of two months of reading skills over the summer when they’re not in school, is just one example of the innovative solutions the organization supports, sponsors and — in some instances — develops on its own.

Another such example is Once Upon A Month. Upon learning that a vast majority of at-risk families don’t own a single children’s book, United Way created this program. Through it, families receive a free children’s book every month for a year, along with parent guides in both English and Spanish. The resulting interactions stimulate curiosity, language development and learning skills.

According to Sampson, United Way is committed to filling these gaps in service, and they simply won’t quit until their job is done.

“We’re out there every day — mobilizing volunteers, partnering with local companies, helping non-profits and community organizations,” she says. “With the help of our generous donors, volunteers and supporters, we’re making sure that everyone in our community gets the chance to live their best life.”

You, too, can help more students get the academic support they need and the opportunities they deserve. To be part of the change, give, advocate or volunteer at unitedwaydallas.org.

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