By Keisha Kersey
One program that demonstrates the ways that AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund can work together is Reading Partners, a national education nonprofit that supports young readers in Title I schools. Just six years ago, Reading Partners was a promising local program serving a few hundred youth in the Bay Area. Today, they are serving over 7,000 students in 137 schools throughout California, Colorado, Texas, New York, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Maryland, and Washington, DC. Much of this expansion has been directly fueled by investments from both AmeriCorps and SIF.
“I’m not sure there are many programs that utilize CNCS resources more than we do,” notes CEO Michael Lombardo. “We have two SIF grants and six different AmeriCorps grants. Those resources have been critical in the expansion of our program.”
Reading Partners uses AmeriCorps members to lead the implementation of their volunteer-based reading intervention: State and National members serve as program coordinators at local sites, recruiting, training, and mobilizing volunteers in the schools. The program also engages VISTA members in capacity-building, fundraising, program development, and communications activities at both local sites and the national office. Access to this supply of talented coordinators and targeted professional skills has been a cornerstone of the program’s growth. As Reading Partners has grown, CNCS has been able to keep pace, providing more members and even arranging a special relationship with the California Commission that allows reading Partners to place AmeriCorps members nationally through their state office.
But it was the investment of the Social Innovation Fund that really enabled Reading Partners to go from a promising local program to nationally-replicated model. The journey actually began before the official launch of SIF—Reading Partners was already interested in working with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) when the SIF opportunity presented itself. “The timing of it worked out well,” notes Lombardo, “The prominence of the SIF opportunity was alluring. In some ways, winning SIF funding from EMCF was our ‘IPO,’ the thing that allowed us to take our intervention ‘public.’”
The growth plan that emerged provided a compelling platform for new and long-term funders like Tipping Point Community, to also join and suppport Reading Partners’ next phase through EMCF’s True North Fund. As a result, Reading Partners expanded to five new states, and also paved the way for participation in the subsequent SIF portfolio of Mile High United Way, which found the Reading Partners model a great fit for its initiative focused on improving 3rd-grade reading scores statewide. Says Lombardo, “Our success working with EMCF in the first SIF cohort allowed us to be ‘found’ by Mile High United Way. It’s a great example of how SIF can help connect you to the right funders.”
But in spite of this rapid expansion and newfound visibility, Lombardo says the most exciting aspect of the SIF work is the evaluation component. Reading Partners joined SIF with a solid history of program impacts. Complementing prior evaluation work by Stanford University, internal data collected by Reading Partners showed its students significantly outperform their peers in the same classroom, and standardized assessments show that 89 percent of participating students gain on average an entire grade level in reading skills for every 25 hours in the program. The current randomized controlled trial – funded by the SIF and undertaken by MDRC — could lead to even bigger things. Lombardo notes, “We feel that these results will not only further validate our model, but will also generate best practice information that can be shared with the broader education field. Our expectations and hopes around the final results are big.”
Lombardo feels that the Reading Partners growth experience is one that could be replicated by other programs wishing to combine the power of AmeriCorps and the SIF. “It’s been transformative, impactful. We are fortunate to have this experience. Programs making good use of AmeriCorps members should see this as an incredible opportunity for growth and scaling.”
But the experience has not been without challenges: the matching fund requirements and restrictions have necessitated changes in program implementation in Colorado and the emphasis on data use and reporting has required all their sites to invest significant resources in the evaluation component. But Lombardo also feels that these are now known challenges and that new SIF applicants are in a much better place to meet these hurdles head on: “[New SIF programs] should learn as much as they can from the prior cohorts about how to manage SIF and AmeriCorps together effectively. Talk to previous grantees and clarify your expectations about how it will go.”
And while SIF and AmeriCorps have proven to be a potent combination for Reading Partners, Lombardo is already planning on taking their forthcoming new evidence to leverage the next scaling opportunity: “Once we’ve proven this model, how do we keep it going? SIF has been a true game changer for us, but I’m already thinking about how we can build on SIF and take our program to the next level.”