The following piece was published on the website of the Rogers Family Foundation, which originally staffed and housed the Oakland Literacy Coalition until we spun off as an independent organization in 2016. It is part of a series designed to highlight the work and reflections of grantees over the lifetime of the Foundation. Thank you to the authors for capturing this history and key lessons.
Written by Sara Levine, Senior Program Officer, Rogers Family Foundation; Cassie Perham, Founding Co-Director, Oakland Literacy Coalition; and Dana Wellhausen, Senior Director of Strategic Operations, Rogers Family Foundation
Since inception, literacy has been a focus for the Rogers Family Foundation (RFF) as part of its larger goal to improve the educational experience for students across Oakland. This piece is a collaboration between current and former RFF staff, and while it provides a high level overview of RFF’s journey in the Oakland literacy space it does not seek to provide a comprehensive, in depth history of all literacy focused work in Oakland. Our aim is to share reflections and lessons that shaped our work as well as the work around us, and highlight leaders and grantees we see at the forefront of this work now and in the future.
Understanding the Literacy Landscape and Launching the Oakland Literacy Coalition
In its first years of operation, the Rogers Family Foundation’s (RFF) work centered on building relationships, learning about the education landscape in Oakland, and distributing small grants to organizations connected to education and youth development. A number of these organizations focused on improving literacy through a mix of increased access to books, one-to-one support inside and outside the classroom, afterschool programs, and creating opportunities for students to express themselves through writing. Overall, these programs aimed to complement learning happening during the school day and build families’ skills to support literacy development at home. Based on standardized assessment data at the time, it was clear that students across Oakland were not reading on grade level. Research demonstrates a correlation between reading proficiency in early elementary grades with future academic performance — reading at grade level by third grade is a key indicator of high school graduation.1 Literacy became a core focus area of RFF given its pivotal connection to high quality education and its importance in the long-term successes of Oakland students.
Supporting students to become successful readers is like fitting together pieces of a puzzle. The mix of conditions and experiences students need are numerous, intertwined, and at times complex; they also cross different times and places within a child’s life – at home, in early learning spaces, classrooms, schools, afterschool programs, and community-based programs. There was, and will always be, a need for a well-connected and aligned ecosystem around literacy. Early on, RFF found there was a vast range of literacy providers working across Oakland with varied effectiveness, limited collaboration, and often disjointed redundancies. The task of improving and formalizing collaboration amongst the providers had the potential to create synergistic relationships in service of children reading, as well as to deepen working relationships with Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), and charter schools and networks. Efforts to bring literacy providers together were hosted by RFF at the East Bay Community Foundation. These early meetings held space for nonprofit literacy provider staff to meet each other, share successes, discuss common challenges, and explore how greater coordination could support educators, schools, families and, most importantly, students. Conversations revealed that a dedicated space that regularly convened providers was both needed and desired. This work ultimately became the Oakland Literacy Coalition (OLC), which was initially staffed and housed by RFF.
Guided by Student Progress and New Access to Data
Beyond the lack of collaboration and alignment across the ecosystem, an underlying challenge for all literacy efforts at this time was the – now debunked, but then popular – balanced literacy approach used to teach reading,2 compounded by uneven classroom experiences across schools. Student outcomes year after year demonstrated that by and large the majority of Oakland third graders, and elementary school students in general, were not reading at grade level. The persistent literacy crisis in Oakland was further highlighted as access to data increased through efforts like Oakland Reads 2020 and its reports, which illuminated the gaps in reading achievement across student groups. Later on, access to a variety of education data points through websites like OUSDdata.org increased the number of participants in the literacy data conversation. This access was critical to engage families, communities, schools, nonprofits, and system leaders in developing solutions.
The OLC led data collection efforts to identify and inventory which schools across Oakland were working with literacy providers. Data analysis quickly identified gaps in service and access – some schools were oversaturated while other schools had no partnerships. The OLC took several steps to address these gaps, one of which, LitMap, continues to help school leadership identify organizations that can provide support for their students, and facilitate conversations between overlapping school-site providers. In 2016 the OLC spun out of RFF and became a fully independent organization with the locus of control in the community.
Getting Reading Instruction Right and Building a Cohesive Vision for Literacy
With the OLC now independent, the RFF team reflected on its literacy grantmaking and how it mapped to trends in literacy work in Oakland and beyond. RFF met with literacy nonprofits, various departments in OUSD, and different charter partners to learn about the current state of literacy work in Oakland. Through participation in regional and national conversations it was clear that a shift in the approach to reading instruction was underway. Most importantly, consensus was building in Oakland around the fact that students benefited the most from intervention support when their schools were also effectively teaching reading in the classroom; that is, intervention programs cannot make up for insufficient or ineffective classroom instruction. While some students may need additional support even when there is successful classroom instruction provided (in education parlance, Tier 1), intervention programs (Tiers 2 and 3) are most effective when they align with and build off of a strong classroom program. Conversations were heated, and opinions were many about how and why reading outcomes were so low. Thoughts on the path forward differed, but discussions were grounded in the reading data that showed there had been almost no improvement in reading proficiency across the city for several years, and that outcomes were disproportionately bad for Black and Brown children.
Questions were asked by families, teachers, and leaders. Which practices were not serving students? Whose perspectives were not being considered by systems leaders and decision makers? How could teachers be supported to deliver consistent, quality reading instruction? How should administrators support teachers? How could schools and teachers truly partner with families? Exchanges were happening at different levels across the local educational systems (OUSD and charter schools). OUSD regularly convened literacy community partners to convey and reinforce the literacy shifts in the district (related to the district’s strategic plan), and to celebrate early wins. The OLC served as a convener, creating opportunities for literacy providers to be in direct conversation with system leaders, informing the development of the OUSD strategic plan (including curriculum adoption), and building alignment across efforts. This collaboration was markedly different from the early days of the OLC when the focus was to gather groups in the same room to learn and share about each other’s programming. The conversation had now evolved to focus on building a vision together for literacy in Oakland and actively taking stock of what was and was not working. The years of trust and relationship building were instrumental in getting to this point. The partnership of classroom instruction with strategic, targeted intervention for individual students is the way to ensure that all kids will learn to read. For RFF’s explicit goals, deepening investments in classroom instruction, and the accompanying supports for it, were the way forward.
All of the aforementioned actions happened because of leaders who emerged with passion, energy, perspective, insight, and ideas. Through community activism and educator organizing, the balanced literacy approach was abandoned and replaced by structured literacy, a phonics driven, explicit and systematic approach that teaches students to decode words, based on the science of reading, that has been shown time and again to be the most effective way to teach most children to read. Education for Change Public Schools was an early adopter of the shift. Alignment began to emerge between school administrators, teacher practices, and student experiences. Many of the conversations and ensuing work was seeded by Kareem Weaver, a longtime Oakland educator whose conviction and commitment to Oakland’s Black children and families receiving high quality reading instruction led him to become an active member of the Oakland NAACP and later co-found FULCRUM to further his fierce advocacy. Kareem was unabashed in calling out the fact that reading is a fundamental right for students and that the persistence of ineffectual instructional practices needed to be addressed head on. He points to a quote from The American Federation of Teachers Teaching Reading is Rocket Science report that reads: Low reading achievement, more than any other factor, is the root cause of chronically low-performing schools, which harm students and contribute to the loss of public confidence in our school system. When many children don’t learn to read, the public schools cannot and will not be regarded as successful—and efforts to dismantle them will proceed. “In other words,” says Kareem, “if you don’t fix reading you’re going to have to close schools. I read this and was stunned by the clarity. So I went to an OUSD board meeting and gave printed copies of the quote to Board Directors, union leaders, parents, [and] advocates. Most, however, were focusing on something else. They couldn’t make time for literacy. A year later, schools began to shut down. I realized that our inability to focus on literacy is tearing the city apart. We began to ask simple questions, ‘How are you teaching these five core elements of reading? Do you have a skill-based scope and sequence?’ These are basic questions that don’t get asked enough.”
Making shifts in classroom instruction and teacher professional development in a large school district such as OUSD requires persistence in the face of systemic inertia and resistance to change, and the willingness to continue to do the work no matter how slow it progresses. Progress was supported by the desire to be real and honest about the challenges of the system while at the same time being open to new solutions. Critical work across OUSD was spurred by mounting pressure within and outside the system. A new Superintendent and new staff in the OUSD Academics and Instruction Office coupled with leadership from individuals like Kareem, and grassroots advocacy from families through The Oakland REACH and the Literacy for All campaign,3 were key to push for the shift to structured literacy. Romy Trigg-Smith, Director of Early Literacy (PK-2) in OUSD says, “About three years ago we embarked on redefining our vision for language and literacy instruction in OUSD. This vision has provided us with both an anchor and a north star to make some shifts aligned to the science of reading and research. One key activity that has propelled some of these shifts has been engaging in collaborative learning through curriculum agnostic training focused on evidence-based literacy instruction and assessment– such as the Core Reading Academy– which allows teachers to develop a deep understanding of all the strands that make up reading instruction.” Professional development and support is ongoing. This phase in Oakland’s literacy story reflects both a lesson and strategy around systems change. The right conditions for change can often propel work swiftly. RFF looked for ways to support the work and not get in the way (as foundations sometimes do).
Listening to and Centering Families
A marked increase in awareness and acceptance of the role of families in literacy strategies also emerged due to advocacy by local leaders, parents, and organizations, and a shift in national conversations around parent power. While the belief that parents are a child’s first teacher has been long held, family engagement as a literacy strategy in and of itself is a newer, but now widely accepted, tactic. While early efforts to engage families were modeled on information and expertise flowing from schools and literacy providers, there’s been a necessary shift to have the partnerships be more authentically bi-directional and, increasingly with parents leading the way. Engagement includes family reading nights and book give-aways, but has also deepened to include targeted and direct skill building and advocacy training with families. These new skills position families to more effectively support their children(s) literacy development, understand what effective classroom instruction looks like, and know what questions to ask their teacher(s) and school(s) about literacy instruction. Some programs like Springboard Collaborative focus on family engagement in concentrated spurts while others like 3Ls: The Academy, led by Oakland native Dr. Sabrina “Bri” Moore, aims to develop a relationship with families over the long haul. “The fact that we always consider the idea of the whole child in isolation of their families makes no sense to me” says Dr. Bri. “Families need to be seen and valued. Family engagement is usually something like – we’re going to host this event and you’re going to come. What if we said, ‘this is your space, what would you like to do?’ It’s their table, not ours. At 3Ls we have found listening campaigns are so important. Our parents said, ‘We want to do events on Saturday morning,’ which we hadn’t considered, but when we started offering events on Saturdays all the families turned up! We are really and truly in partnership. As a community we need to do different. Listen, believe people, and respond.” The work of 3Ls, and groups like The Oakland REACH and Families in Action Oakland (FIA), exemplify a core lesson around the importance of making intentional investments in rising, innovative leaders and community capacity building as a way to build community power and best position those leaders who can move the work ahead.
Collectively Pushing Change Forward
The OLC is instrumental in continually moving the literacy community by holding the space and intention to keep leaders, literacy providers, and community partners in ongoing, well-connected relationships. The OLC’s mandate includes connecting the many actors and entities and pushing collaboration and communication forward. To get all students reading, all parties must hold ongoing conversations from a place of openness, curiosity, and learning. In addition, an entity to hold schools and districts accountable needs to be in place to understand and track ongoing progress and identify places to dig in deeper if change is not moving at the desired pace. The OLC is creating awareness and generating buy-in to the science of reading (the research that shows structured literacy is the most effective reading instruction), offering trainings and hosting events to share effective practices, and facilitating relationships and alignment in the ecosystem. Progress will require a collective effort across many fronts, even when the district and charter schools continue to invest in more effective curriculum, and embrace effective pedagogies. “The literacy crisis in Oakland is solvable. A future where all Oakland students learn to read is well within reach,” reflects OLC Founding Co-Director Cassie Perham. “It will take a collective, community-wide effort, weaving together the strength of Oakland families, schools, and community partners. And we know that effective collaboration doesn’t just happen, it requires ongoing relationship and trust-building, continual learning, and communication. The OLC exists to connect the dots across individual efforts and help us move forward together to make greater, faster progress for all Oakland students.”
There is so much yet to do to ensure that all Oakland students are reading on grade level, and for the public education systems to educate not some, but all children no matter their families’ background, where they live, or where they go to school. Reading is a fundamental right; we are honored to have supported, nurtured, collaborated and learned with the Oaklanders who will make it true.
Learning and Practice Shifts
The following practices below reflect RFF’s learning journey working in both literacy and education broadly in Oakland. We share these not as experts, but fellow learners wanting to contribute to the ever evolving breadth of knowledge across foundations and nonprofits striving for a more equitable, just, and better world.
Never stop listening. Stay engaged in an ongoing listening campaign to understand the context of the work, and to respond to community needs in ways that work for them and will ensure program success.
Invest in and support community leaders to be their best selves. Then get out of their way.
Assume nothing. You don’t know what you don’t know.
Understand that the work might change shape in service of the goal. Outputs and outcomes are a snapshot of best thinking.
Celebrate the wins.
We see the following grantees – FULCRUM, 3Ls: The Academy, and the Oakland Literacy Coalition – as true leaders in the space of literacy revolution in Oakland. These leaders and their teams will continue this work long past RFF’s timeline and have the potential to shift the narrative around literacy and student reading progress. We hope you will champion their work, follow their progress, and support their efforts.
The Rogers team expresses deep gratitude to Kareem, Romy, Bri, and Cassie for sharing their perspectives and their relentless pursuit to write a new chapter in Oakland’s literacy story. Over the course of the Foundation’s history we have built relationships with many literacy programs and organizations across Oakland. We also thank and recognize them for their work and dedication to advance literacy through work with children, families, teachers, schools, and system leaders. A complete list of our literacy grantees can be found here.