04.08.21

Birth-to-Five Literacy: Community Outreach and Advocacy

By Sarah Ballew Welch – Blue Ridge, Georgia

Sarah Ballew Welch photograph Sarah Ballew Welch serves as the Director of Instructional Services and Policy for the Fannin County School System in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Prior to this position, she worked as the district’s literacy coordinator and secondary English teacher. She is a 2015 Georgia Teacher-of-the-Year Finalist, and a Round I recipient of Governor’s Office of Student Achievement Innovation in Teaching Grant. Currently, Ms. Welch’s leadership efforts focus on aligning available resources/services for economically disadvantaged families and promoting the love of reading in her community. Here is her story.

Introduction

I grew up in the county where I now work as an educator ― in fact, it is the same district where my great grandmother once taught in a one-room schoolhouse. Nestled in the Appalachians, Fannin County is located at the point where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet. While our community was at one time held afloat by the Levi’s plant, textile jobs began to be outsourced in the late 1990s, and the plant closed. The focus then shifted to real estate until the 2008 recession.

Now, the leading industry in our community of approximately 25,000 people is tourism (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). Our downtown is flush with specialty boutiques and high-end restaurants. Our population doubles on weekends, especially during peak seasons. However, this situation creates an illusion of affluence that does not apply to the majority of families in our district. Our school system serves children from both extremes, and the disparity is noticeable. Our population of economically disadvantaged students ranges from 55 percent to 72 percent across all schools.

Literacy is the foundation for improving the lives of our students. To best impact our community and ultimately influence economic consequences, we must consider literacy from a systemic perspective.

Challenges

In Fannin County, we have redesigned our paradigm. Previously, the role of the school system began when a student walked through our doors in kindergarten. As we strive to better serve the “whole child,” we should consider brain development, language acquisition, and access to print. We must extend our influence beyond the walls of the school, and this redefinition of boundaries is where I have spent the majority of my time for the past two years.

The Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium (2011) identified standards for the teacher leader: “Improving Outreach and Collaboration with Families and Community” and “Advocating for Student Learning,” are both embodied in this work. Establishing community networks and advocating improved literacy outcomes have become my consuming passions, partly as a result of an instance that occurred during my first-year teaching.

I waltzed into my first classroom (in another “fragile” community) at the age of 22 with only my English literature degree and a stubborn personality. After weeks of frustration with one student for failing to do his work, he brought me a letter. The student, whose mother helped him write every word, apologized for not doing his work and explained that it was because he could not read. This letter ineffably overwhelmed and shamed me. What I faulted as a lack of effort was in actuality a total inability to read. This formative classroom experience directly led me to define my role within my “fragile” community.

Solutions

Two years ago, I began meeting with organizations to survey available resources for families in our community and ways that we could work together to improve the delivery of existing services. The L4GA grant served as a vehicle for discourse. As a result of many honest conversations, our Birth-to-Five Literacy Outreach project manifested. Through the generosity of our local school board, we have distributed 1,000 backpacks of books to newborns and three-year-olds across our community.

In examining community data, approximately 22% of the babies here are born to mothers who have not completed high school (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2019). Many reasons can exist for this number but the majority of those mothers probably did not have an ideal educational experience. We needed to impact literacy at the family level.

However, one of the chief barriers was logistics. The original plan was to give every newborn a literacy bag at the hospital; however, access to medical care is becoming a growing concern in rural communities. In our case, the hospital remains, but families must drive a minimum of 30 minutes to arrive at a medical facility equipped for labor and delivery.

According to a poll by National Public Radio, the Robert Woodward Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one in four rural Americans said they are unable to access required healthcare. To overcome this barrier, we expanded our network of community partners, and now families may pick up bags at the local health department, pediatrician offices, Family Connections, and other locations. High school students in teaching and early childhood pathways assemble the bags, and drivers’ education students deliver them while gaining hours on the road.

Outcomes

In addition to our Literacy Outreach project, one of the most significant cornerstones of this campaign has been the heightened degree of community involvement. From partnering with Home Depot for holiday toy-building to the local Swan Drive-in Theater to show films, we are improving engagement. Also, our work with the University of North Georgia (UNG) has been incredibly beneficial; “FCSS Reading Role Models” will serve as the UNG Scholars’ Service Learning Project for the second year.

Lessons Learned

Educators across the nation are working tirelessly in diverse and fragile communities. However, perhaps one of the most poignant lessons I have learned is that one person cannot do it all. It is not sustainable and you must grow your capacity for others to expand your work.

Teacher-leadership is about making choices and forging new relationships. Circumstances can facilitate involvement but an individual must decide to discard complacency and actively work to make changes. Become an advocate for a positive change, and others will follow suit.

Literacy is the foundation for survival in this world, and its development, or lack thereof, can have generational and/or societal economic repercussions.

This article originally appeared in the Center for Educational Opportunity’s white paper “A Sacred Space: 12 Expert Teachers Share Stories of Resilience, Success and Leadership.”