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May 9, 2019

D.C. missed a deadline. And our students will pay the price.

Originally posted on Washington Post by senior executive director of Reading Partners DC, Karen Gardner.

Earlier this year, the District government missed a deadline to reapply for federal AmeriCorps funding, leaving $3.5 million requested by the nonprofits Reading Partners, Literacy Lab and City Year in jeopardy. When this error came to light, The Washington Post reported that money was slated to be used in the next school year to fund 247 AmeriCorps slots: 57 tutors through Reading Partners and Literacy Lab and 190 team members at City Year. These essential team members serve as tutors and mentors to D.C. students and help manage classrooms in under-resourced schools.

The Reading Partners community is confident the mayor’s office will fulfill the serious responsibility to right this wrong one way or another. However, the unfortunate reality is that although the need for literacy intervention is substantial and urgent, funding is often at the whim of policy. This example is just the latest.

You may have heard the frightening statistics: Students who don’t read proficiently by fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. It is more alarming when we dial in and look at the statistics locally. In 2017, only 19 percent of the District’s fourth-graders from low-income families could read at or above grade level, placing the District among the cities with the widest opportunity gaps in the country.

Reading Partners has been part of the educational landscape in the District since 2010, when we first began placing community volunteers in high-need schools to help students master essential reading skills. Today, we mobilize more than 1,100 community volunteers to provide individualized tutoring sessions supporting more than 950 kindergarten through fourth-grade students across 19 under-resourced schools in the District. Our individualized, evidence-based curriculum helps build critical early literacyand social-emotional skills needed to succeed in school and beyond.

Approximately 70 percent of Reading Partners is comprised of AmeriCorps members serving in critical roles, including managing the day-to-day operations of our reading centers in local District schools. As an example of impact, some of our Reading Partners AmeriCorps member coordinate 70+ volunteers, providing up to 1,800 hours of individualized literacy intervention with students.

AmeriCorps members are paid a modest living stipend. If we had to replace all 37 AmeriCorps positions with paid staff, we estimate the total gap in our budget would be $1 million, resulting in a decrease of services, particularly in schools that require more resources. Ironically, we know the numbers for this serious impact on our budget because the current presidential administration has been threatening to cut AmeriCorps funding for the past few years.

On March 11, the White House released its initial outline of the FY 2020 Congressional Budget Justification. For the third time in a row, the administration has recommended the complete elimination of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds more than 3,000 organizations, including Reading Partners, Boys and Girls Clubs, City Year, Habitat for Humanity and United Way.

This is not the first time elimination of CNCS has been proposed. In fact, just last year, the same elimination was proposed by the White House. For Reading Partners, losing AmeriCorps funding would be devastating. Nationally, our annual AmeriCorps revenue is more than $4.7 million. This covers nearly 350 AmeriCorps and VISTA members, reaching 14 metropolitan areas, mobilizing more than 13,000 community volunteers and serving more than 11,000 students.

The need is real. The mission is real. And the proof that our program works is real. We have the dedicated people and infrastructure in place to continue the trajectory-changing work that Reading Partners is executing in D.C. schools and across the country. But without the funding and help of the teams such as CNCS and Serve DC that administer these funds, thousands of students will face yet another obstacle to overcome. Bottom line: If our AmeriCorps funding is not renewed, the District’s students will lose an essential portion of the critical early literacy support that they all deserve.

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