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When Data Inspires a Movement: How Arkansans Are Working Together to Boost Student Reading Scores


Only 37 percent of Arkansas third graders read on grade level. Thirty-seven percent. That’s according to student scores on the 2016 ACT Aspire Assessment, the state’s standardized achievement test.

Almost two-thirds of Arkansas children lack the critical early literacy skills they need to be successful throughout the rest of their educational careers and beyond. For those of us who aren’t teachers, principals or school administrators, we might wonder “What can I do about it?” A growing coalition of Arkansans are answering that question with a resounding “Take action!”

When Arkansas Community Foundation produced the first edition of our Aspire Arkansas report, we wanted to provide community leaders with better access to information that would spark conversations about community-minded solutions. Access to key facts and data about our communities can serve as a roadmap, giving us a sense of where we are now and where we can go. We’ve been working to answer the question, “What can everyday Arkansans do to move the numbers in the right direction, and what can Arkansas Community Foundation do to help?”

When we learned about the critical need to improve our kids’ reading scores, we knew we had an opportunity to find out what it could look like to join partners across Arkansas using data to spark positive change.

Here’s what we’re learning:

  1. If you want to go far, go together. Through our partnership with the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, we’ve been able to tap into a network of educators, researchers, advocates and nonprofit leaders all working toward one shared goal: that every child in Arkansas will read at grade level. Through the Campaign, partner organizations can share research and knowledge that benefit everyone and can organize their efforts to create a strong framework of support for kids. At Arkansas Community Foundation, we’re looking for ways to plug into this framework and use our grant dollars to support these partners’ work.

  2. Research what works. Tackling a big problem like early literacy can at first seem overwhelming. However, through our partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, we’ve learned that there are a few simple strategies that research suggests can make a real difference. Armed with this knowledge, we can be more focused in our efforts.

  3. Get the word out! Arkansas Community Foundation is committing grant dollars to address early literacy, but we’re also focused on raising awareness. Through our network of 28 affiliate offices across the state, each with its own advisory board of local leaders, we’re working to connect partners in each community who are working on this issue and to make sure Arkansans across the state understand the critical importance of investing in our children’s reading skills.

  4. Data is the rallying point. If we’re honest with ourselves about the numbers, even when they’re not what we would hope for our communities, data can bring us together. We can celebrate positive change or step back and ask “Why?” if the numbers move in the wrong direction. Although change is slow, the numbers call us back to our focus: ensuring Arkansas kids have the literacy skills they need to succeed. 

Whatever your passion is when it comes to improving your community, the lessons remain the same: 1) start from the data, 2) listen to partners already working on the issue, 3) learn from the research about what works and 4) find a way to use your skills and resources to plug into a network of advocates who are also passionate about your cause.

As the Community Foundation continues to explore ways to make a difference on the other indicators tracked in Aspire Arkansas, we’re excited about the partnerships ahead.

At Arkansas Community Foundation, we're in the business of providing resources to make charitable giving in our state more effective. We consider Aspire Arkansas one of the most important tools in our toolkit. The report is both a yardstick to measure where our state currently stands and a compass to help Arkansans determine where we should go. Equipped with this tool, we hope readers will have the information they need to begin to identify the local needs to address with their time, talent and treasure. Visit AspireArkansas.org to learn more.

Heather Larkin is president and CEO of the Arkansas Community Foundation.

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