Nancy Van MilligenEarly Education Can Never Start Too Early

By: Nancy Van Milligen In: Children's Issues| Education| Partnerships and Collaborations| Philanthropy

15 May 2012

On April 18, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Dubuque, Iowa to launch the Together for Tomorrow campaign.  I was honored to share the stage with him and highlight the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque’s recent work on a third grade reading initiative with our school district and numerous other local partners.

As I prepared my remarks, I recalled meeting Secretary Duncan when he spoke at the 2010 Council on Foundations Fall Conference for Community Foundations in Charlotte, N.C.  His advice was to be bold and partner with our school districts in innovative ways to build trust and get people working together. By supporting a few key strategic objectives, he said, we could give kids a great education and bright futures. Secretary Duncan’s words reinforced the work we were doing, and we returned from the conference committed to building trust and working together for the long haul.

Building partnerships is a natural fit for the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. Our ability to convene, leverage resources, and bring the entire community together around a focused strategy to give kids a great education has allowed us to partner in creative ways with our school district, governments, and nonprofit partners.

Most recently, the community foundation collaborated on an effort to improve third grade reading proficiency. There are important reasons to focus on this educational milestone. In grades 1–3, children learn to read. From then on, they must read to learn. If a child cannot read by third grade, his likelihood of being a high school dropout rises to 74 percent. Some states even estimate their future prison population numbers by looking at third grade reading scores.

To close this achievement gap, we need to ensure that children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. Once they enter grade school, school attendance and summer learning loss become important factors, as well.

Together with our school district and many local partners, we drafted a Third Grade Reading Community Solutions Action Plan. As part of our city’s application for the National Civic League’s All America City Award, it outlines how the school district, the city, the community foundation, and 14 other organizations will share the responsibility of improving low-performing schools. Our goal: to become a world-class education community with a focus on excellence and equity.

I cannot overstate the value of this collaboration. Our discussions were richer, our ideas more innovative, and our vision more expansive thanks to these partnerships.

One of our former board members, Leo McCarthy, was a great role model who gave tirelessly of his skills and knowledge.  He often reminded us, “We are all stronger when we work together.” This is especially true when it comes to our community’s children and their education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Nancy Van Milligen

During Secretary Duncan’s visit, we asked the audience to picture a day when all Dubuque’s children have the resources and community support they need to succeed; to picture living in a community that doesn’t lose kids to child abuse, drug abuse, poverty, and crime; to picture a community where a new generation could become the best and the brightest, regardless of their personal situations.

Here at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, we believe this future is possible, but only if we commit to working together to provide high-quality learning to all our children. Right now, that commitment, that partnership, is happening in Dubuque. As author James Baldwin, said, “…these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

Nancy Van Milligen is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque

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