Investing in Education

When kids can’t read, they can’t succeed

by Matt Villano

This is the phrase most elementary educators use to explain the research that proves the link between early childhood literacy and academic performance later in life. It's also why the John Jordan Foundation (JJF), started by Jordan Winery’s CEO in 2012, is proud to support Schools of Hope, an important initiative run by the United Way of Wine Country.

The program started back in 2010 to help children build critical reading skills between kindergarten and third grade, and the JJF has sponsored it for the last seven years. In 2018 alone, the foundation donated more than $20,000 to support 27 participating schools in Sonoma County.

“Schools of Hope is a powerful upstream way to encourage and build literacy in the elementary schools,” says JJF Executive Director Lisa Wittke Schaffner.

Here’s how the initiative works. First, United Way of the Wine Country recruits, trains and places community volunteers in elementary schools—at last count, there were 35 schools in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties overall. These tutors work one-on-one with students during the school day to supplement the work the kids are doing in the classroom. In some cases, this might mean sight-reading. In other cases, it means working on phonics.

For Schaffner, who has volunteered at several different schools across Sonoma County, the experience has helped students unlock new levels of learning, as well as deeper connections. All told, the program will serve more than 525 students across three counties this school year.

According to Jennifer O’Donnell, executive vice president of the United Way of Wine Country, increasing third grade reading proficiency is a core goal of the initiative since it is a strong predictor of so many successes later in life. O’Donnell notes that children not proficient in reading by the end of the third grade are four times less likely to graduate by age 19, and that low early reading proficiency correlates to higher incarceration rates.

“This is a real problem we’re trying to address,” she says, adding that the overarching goal for this school year is to raise third grade reading proficiency  to at least 90 percent. “So much is tied to reading proficiency, it’s a no-brainer to focus on [improving] it.”

So far, the initiative has yielded positive results. An evaluation by Sonoma State University in 2014 found that first– and second–grade students who received tutoring through the Schools of Hope program showed reading proficiency growth between 28 and 50 percent higher than students who attended schools that did not participate. Subsequent evaluations have shown similarly encouraging data.

Educators are certainly grateful for this hands-on initiative. Candice Eberly, reading intervention program assistant at the J.X. Wilson Elementary School in Santa Rosa, says the program has empowered students to achieve both higher reading comprehension scores and more confidence while reading.

“There is a bond that is created when you share the love of reading with a child,” says Eberly. “Schools of Hope is a wonderful gift to our school.”

A significant portion of the proceeds from Jordan Winery fund the foundation, which works to fight the negative health effects of poverty, improve and provide special educational opportunities, and support children and families in need.