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How United Way aids education in Erie: Dr. Julie Wollman

 The beginning of this school year coincides with the kickoff of United Way's 100th anniversary campaign, which is very appropriate. Education is one of United Way of Erie County's key focus areas in its efforts to help more families and individuals live self-sufficient lives. From birth to successful graduation from high school and beyond, United Way has developed partnerships with area schools and nonprofits that are transforming the educational environment in our community.


Thanks to Erie County citizens' contributions to United Way, we now invest in 12 different direct service educational programs provided by local nonprofits. In addition to these important programs, United Way supports six educational collaborative initiatives. Together, we are creating a coordinated continuum of opportunities strategically designed to help our youth from the time they are born to when they graduate high school. Let me provide just a few examples.


In 2012, volunteer experts from across Erie County identified five key milestones that are key to a child's success in school and beyond. The first is that children are prepared socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually for kindergarten. To support this milestone, United Way funds high-quality pre-K programs serving children from low-income families. The collaborative initiatives include United Way Success By 6, Erie's Future Fund and the Imagination Library with its complementary Reading Buddies program.


Since its inception a little more than a year ago, the Imagination Library has already provided free books monthly to more than 9,100 Erie County children. This success far exceeds expectations and makes Erie a leader in this national project focusing on early childhood literacy.


The second educational milestone is that children are proficient in literacy by the end of third grade. Why is this so important? Reading is critical to learning, and statistics show that children who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school; if you factor in poverty, that number jumps to 13 times more likely. Third-grade reading proficiency is a key indicator of success or failure in school.


Building upon the foundation of literacy established by the kindergarten readiness efforts noted above, United Way has entered into a unique partnership with the Girard School District, which last school year piloted a very promising approach to teaching literacy to young elementary school children who are not reading at grade level. In research trials, this approach, involving more than 3,000 students and 150 teachers, resulted in 94 percent of third-graders reading at or above grade level, well above the national average of 67 percent. Other local school districts have taken note and are considering implementing this highly effective tool.


Third on the list of milestones is that students remain engaged in school and hopeful about their futures. Programs such as Family Services' Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Boys and Girls Club's Discoverers work with youths to help them see the possibilities that exist. Just as important, these programs nurture the attitudes and skills students need to reach their fullest potential.


Positive Youth Development, a collaborative initiative, activates communities to create healthy, caring and responsible citizens by promoting 40 developmental assets that are the building blocks of healthy youth development. Now in its third year at Strong Vincent High School, this initiative has already reduced truancy rates and increased student engagement in school.


The fourth milestone is that students of all ages can envision age-appropriate career paths. This can mean discussing with kindergartners what they want to be when they grow up, or with high school students what they plan to do when they graduate -- and plenty of other connections in between that inspire hope and focus on a positive future. United Way funds a number of after-school programs that explicitly include career awareness in their work.


We are proud to be one of the founding sponsors of Career Street, a comprehensive career exploration and planning initiative linking businesses, nonprofit organizations and schools. The goal of Career Street is to create and share opportunities for students to job shadow, intern, tour workplaces, learn about careers from class speakers, and participate in career workshops and fairs.


One example of how this is working is with United Way's Young Leaders Society, which has adopted the fifth-grade class at McKinley Elementary School. This year, in addition to providing homework supplies, books, sweatshirts and a field trip, YLS is meeting monthly with the fifth-grade students to talk about career options and will hold a career fair at the end of the year.


The fifth and final education milestone is that students graduate from high school on time, with a career plan and the skills necessary to be successful in postsecondary education. While this might seem the logical result of students achieving the first four milestones, we know it is not that simple. For a number of years United Way has been working with the Union City Area School District, Positive Youth Development and others in Union City on a project to reduce truancy and dropouts. The result, according to Erie Vital Signs, is that Union City now leads the county with an exceptional high school graduation rate of 98.2 percent. It is our hope to take what has been learned in Union City to other school districts in our area.


I have provided only a snapshot of the educational work being accomplished through direct service programs and partnerships. Erie Together is another important collaborative complementing United Way's effort to create a continuum of resources supporting early childhood education, kindergarten readiness, and higher education and career readiness for students throughout Erie County.


The responsibility for accomplishing our goals in education rests not just with our schools and our teachers. Even the best educational environment cannot compensate for children who are not ready to learn when they reach school, whose home life is not supportive of learning, or who see no future for themselves as productive citizens. It will take our entire community, working in concert with our schools, to achieve success.


As you consider your United Way contribution during our centennial year, please keep in mind the many education-related programs and initiatives you will be supporting. The direct result of your contribution will be the thousands of local young people who are on the road to a better life thanks to you, because great things happen when we live united.


JULIE WOLLMAN is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and a board member of United Way of Erie County.
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