Thursday, January 30, 2014

Influencing Graduation Rates Through an Early Investment

by Maureen Faccia, Executive Vice President

Last week, I had an opportunity to speak about work we are facilitating that could Change the Story for young students in Tacoma.

Almost 300 people convened at the STAR Center in Tacoma for Graduate Tacoma!, a celebration of the progress that has been made to bolster student success and workforce readiness for Tacoma. Graduate Tacoma! ( is a community-wide effort seeking to improve high school and post-secondary graduation rates by 50 percent by the year 2020.

United Way believes the best investment we can make today to influence high school graduation rates, and ultimately the workforce and economic conditions of our community later is to invest early in a child’s life. Truly, how can we expect a child who isn’t ready for school by Kindergarten or doesn’t have family stability or access to opportunities to continue learning outside of school time beat the odds, catch up and then advance to graduation? Our aim is to change the story for young children co-creating strategies with community partners and school districts. We are making investments to ensure kids are ready for kindergarten, that they are learning to read in the early grades so they can read to learnas they progress further in school, and -probably most importantly for this age group– we want to ensure their families have the necessary supportsto enable their child to be successful in school.

Last spring, United Way convened dozens of community partners, principals and other leaders within the Tacoma School District. Just 48 percent of Tacoma kindergarteners were ready for the 2012 school year, according to the state’s WA-Kids (Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills) and less than two-thirds of third graders could read according to the State’s Reading Proficiency exam. Our team is working to develop a plan to ensure many more kids are ready for kindergarten and ensure kids can read at grade level by the end of third grade, where the importance of reading shifts to reading to learn subjects like math, geography, and science.

Our work for 2014 seeks to build connections among providers so that more families can easily find and access programs in the community to help their children be prepared for school. We also hope to require elevating important messages like “Love.Talk.Play.,” that Attendance Matters and the importance of reading with your young child.

Our group identified opportunities to expand quality programs that will further engage families of pre-school age children to become their child’s first and most important teacher with a Spanish-language Play to Learn or the Reach Out and Read program that provides books and advice to parents within the clinical setting of a pediatrician’s office. For more on this effort, see the full report at (insert link to the report).

For the youngest of school age children, it is often not their choice about whether or not they will be in school. In fact, many families do not realize that missing one or two days of school per month even in Kindergarten can be correlated to gaps in grade level reading by the end of third grade. Influencing what are often cultural norms around attendance requires the support of the entire community and we need your help. We are collaborating with media partners like KBTC PBS-Kids to help reinforce messages that being in school every day matters which we hope will lead to healthy attendance habits and we are hoping to engage families directly to hear about what barriers they are experience keeping their kids in school.

Underscoring all of this is the importance of inviting parents to participate in the conversation. While many of you are caring community partners, some are also parents. We want you to know you are invited to join in the conversation and help us prepare our kids for a lifetime love of learning.

Monday, January 27, 2014

What Will it Take?

by Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager - Early Grade Excellence

So many of us have not been in a classroom for many years, we have matured, our children are grown, we see our grandchildren and neighborhood children but we are far removed from the schools.  After experiencing a great opportunity to re-engage with the school district I live in and reflect on what I hear from so many individuals in the community about our schools, I am compelled to share some thoughts. 
Recently, I was blessed to actually walk into classrooms and observe teachers and their students in the midst of a full day of educational opportunities.  It certainly had no resemblance to the classrooms I attended, or in a multitude of ways, to the classrooms my children participated in.  What I witnessed was not teachers demonstrating their authority and children silently sitting in a very stoic controlled atmosphere.  I witnessed real learning, where teachers were respectfully guiding the children while encouraging them to be in control of themselves. Teachers keeping the class focused in a thoughtful, engaging manner that recognized the different learning styles and methods for achieving answers.  I saw children increasing their reading skills using a computer program that helps them learn the words, practice reading and then be scored as to their comprehension and timing that would have taken hours for a teacher to accomplish with each student.  I saw children, very young children, learning the basics of math through games and play, and then I saw the next grade up using what they had learned previously to actually complete math papers.  And, I saw children joyfully learning and then sharing their knowledge and understanding carefully with peers to ensure they understood the process as well.

When my children started kindergarten, it was encouraged that they know their ABC’s, and could count and recognize numbers to 10, knew their colors and shapes.  Today that just isn’t enough and we need to make sure they have the resources to be prepared to learn. And, that’s not enough either, we have to educate ourselves, we have to realize that our children today are stepping into a world where information is at their fingertips and they will be expected to access that information, utilize and disseminate it rapidly.  The only way we can do this is to make sure that our schools have the resources they need to do this important work. 
Right now several of our Pierce County school districts have bond levies coming up for vote in February. The majority of these levies are replacement levies – which means they are not more money they are just continuing the money the school had received for a designated period of time that now needs to be renewed for them to carry on. Some school districts do have additional levies requesting Instructional Technology, or capital levies and they have done their homework before bringing these to you.  It’s easy to get your ballot and say no, but today I ask you to take a better look. Do you realize that the government looks at third grade reading scores as part of the calculation used in deciding how many jail cells will be needed in the future?   Yes, that’s what data has shown for years. But, your vote “YES” has the opportunity to change this. You can make a difference for your community for the children living on your block, and for future generations by saying YES to schools.  And, you don’t have to take my word for what’s happening at the schools in our communities – make an appointment and go see for yourself, then you’ll know what it takes to Change the Story for our children and for the future of our community. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Q&A with Dona, CEO

by Lindsey Burks, Marketing Intern

 After ringing in the New Year, the United Way of Pierce County team embraced some changes – healthier lifestyles, a reinvigorated sense of purpose and most importantly, our new CEO Dona Ponepinto. Dona hails from the great Motor City yet she is quickly becoming right at home in Tacoma. I recently sat down with her to get better acquainted and her enthusiasm for her new position and for this community was undeniable.
You’ve been with United Way for a long time. What is your history with the organization and what are you most proud of?
“I’ve been with United Way 26 and a half years. This is my fourth community, my fourth United Way. I feel like United Way has been a part of my family. My parents supported United Way for 23 years when my dad was in the military and gave to United Way every paycheck, and it really was my mother who told me to check out United Way when I moved to California. I went in, interviewed for the job and the next day they offered it to me and I thought ‘Okay this is a good start. I’ve got a job and I can move now, and I’ll do this for a little while until I figure out what it is I really want to do.’ Twenty-six years later, here I am still doing the job. Once I got in it, I loved the fact that United Way brings together people in the community and that has never changed. We fund organizations, we raise money but at the heart of it we bring people together and help improve, collectively, everyone’s lives. So that’s what I’ve enjoyed the most about being a part of United Way. There are so many things I’m proud of but I’m most proud of the teams that I’ve had over the years. The passion and the commitment of the staff of every United Way that I’ve been a part of, the partnerships that I’ve been able to develop in the community, those relationships have impacted me forever.”
What made you want to leave Detroit to come lead United Way of Pierce County?
“As I’ve gone through my career I’ve always felt that if the timing was right, if it was the right community, and if the community felt it was a good fit I’d take everything I’ve learned over the years and bring that another community. There was a point in time where I said ‘I like this macro-level work. I really like looking at things from above and the strategy of how you make social change happen in a community. I think United Way really is about inviting people to the table and being this influencer, and if I can bring that to another community then I would love the opportunity. And Tacoma, from the very beginning when I started the interview process, I felt something that said to me ‘this feels right’. There’s just this genuineness about the people I’ve met here throughout the interview process, and when it was all said and done, I knew that if they felt the same way, we were going to be a good match together.”
What are the issues you are most passionate about?
“I am most passionate about making sure individuals and families have the opportunities and support they need to be successful; that children can grow up in an environment where they see opportunity, where they see hope, and parents can provide a better life for their children. I am a student of social justice, I am a great believer in people having equal opportunity and there are so many people out there who feel marginalized but every single person should have access to tools and resources. Also, putting a stake in the ground in early childhood development while keeping in mind that families need to be strong and stable because children do not live in a vacuum, they live in families. Children in poverty are living in families in poverty, so those families need opportunities. They need self-sustaining jobs so they can keep roofs over their heads and food on the table. I am an incredible believer that when you bring public, private and nonprofit sectors together, we can get things done. Making that happen is sometimes the biggest challenge but when it does, it is amazing. I think United Way is in the best position to be able to do that.”
United Way of Pierce County recently narrowed our strategic focus to four areas: Early Childhood Development, Early Grade Excellence, Strengthening Families and Basic Needs and Supportive Services. Do you think United Way of Pierce County is moving in the right direction with these focus areas?
“Yes I think we are. I think we need to continue to focus because all four of these areas, there’s so much you can do. So our next steps are really to ask - what do we want to be true of these four areas in five to ten years? We must be very clear of what we are ultimately trying to measure; I call it the ‘so what’. We can do all of these things, so what. How do we know that our children are better off? That families are better off? I’m not just talking about the families that go through an agency; I’m talking about all families because not every family is going to go to a nonprofit, most won’t. So what are we doing to make sure families in our community know where to go? Think about it, if you need something you have a network. So do people that are struggling every day because they figure it out. Someone who needs childcare may not be able to afford childcare, but they figure it out and maybe utilize a neighbor. We see so many of these informal networks in communities that tie individuals together so the question is - how do we help strengthen those informal networks for people?”
What is your impression of the Pacific Northwest so far?
“Well I’ll tell you it’s been a little rainy, just a little! I think it is just beautiful, even with the rain. It’ll take some getting used to but I got here late on a Saturday afternoon and that Sunday was just gorgeous. It was about 46 degrees out but there was sunshine and you could see the mountains; it was just beautiful. Also just everyone I’ve encountered… it’s hard for me to describe but it just feels really genuine here.”
Is there something or someplace specific that you are looking forward to doing or seeing?
“I want to see everything! I like to explore so I will need folks to tell me ‘Oh you have to go see this or do this’. You know I’ll need some help with that but I’m just looking forward to getting out and exploring the region. Not just seeing Tacoma and the city core, but also getting a chance to see more rural areas too.”
So will you take Henry with you when you go exploring? Tell me about your adorable dog and your husband.
“Aw Henry, my little dog! He is nine years old and he loves squirrels. He’s caught a few chipmunks and squirrels, and he’s tried to run after a few deer before but that’s not going to work. He likes chasing and he loves critters! He’s about 25 lbs. but he thinks he’s 90 lbs. He thinks he’s a pretty tough little guy. My husband is a writer. When we were out in California he owned his own company for about 15 years, a communication graphic design company. He loved it and had a really strong clientele base but when we moved to Detroit he really wanted to write, so he went back to school and got his master’s in fine art. He has written a couple books, one of which he published himself, called The Face Maker.”
What is your perfect Saturday?
  "Well I am not a homebody so I would be out somewhere. I love to shop; I don’t always buy things but I love to shop, so being out and walking around the shopping mall would be fun. Really just being out – it doesn’t have to be anything exciting, even just driving to Target because my husband is a homebody so I say ‘see ya!’ and I’ll go around, occasionally I’ll stop somewhere or maybe go to a museum. Friday night is actually the big night at our house, it’s date night!”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What I Learned When I Went Back to School

by Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager - Early Grade Excellence

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in one of Bethel School District's FUTURESCHOOLS tours open to community members, parents and staff. I selected the tour of elementary schools which consisted of three sites within the district. If you haven’t been at an elementary school lately and observed classes and activities – you are truly missing out!

Photo: Bethel School District
What did I see? Whole schools engaged in learning and supporting their children.  Children happy and enjoying learning in a multitude of ways. Children working together, knowing how to share what they've learned and excited to help their peers. Teachers respectfully and creatively engaging their students. Kindergartners learning math. First graders reading and writing about what they had read. Fourth graders learning and sharing their math knowledge and working together to solve bigger problems. Teachers giving clear direction and children LEARNING! Did you do math in kindergarten? Were you able to write the character names and setting of the story you had just read by yourself in first grade?
At United Way of Pierce County, we are focused on the challenges kids are facing in the classroom. We are collaborating with others in our circle to bring partners together and help more kids succeed in school. On this tour, I saw not only teachers but fellow students collaborating to do the same. 
I left the tour proud, amazed and excited by what I saw.  It was wonderful to hear the excitement and interest from the other 35 tour participants as well.
If you are one of those who haven't been in a classroom lately, I encourage you to call your district office and set up a visit and perhaps a tour at your local elementary, middle or high school. You will be amazed at the work being done. 
Right now several of our school district’s have important levies coming up for vote. Education is critical and our schools need our support to insure the success of our children. The children who are leading our world into the future need us and we need them to be educated and successful. Together, we can Change the Story for our kids and our community.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Working Together for Racial Equity in Early Learning

by Nicole Milbradt, Sr. Marketing Associate

United Way of Pierce County wants to make sure all children start school ready to succeed. To do so, we have to remove barriers and strengthen the systems that are supporting our kids. However, the strategy for doing this is not one size fits all. Making sure our community considers race, culture and language when teaching families how to prepare kids for school is often overlooked. United Way, in partnership with First 5 FUNdamentals, Tacoma Urban League and Centro Latino have been awarded a grant from Washington's Thrive by Five to change that.

Pierce County is one of the most diverse counties in our state. According to the most recent census, it is getting more diverse, with growth in Hispanic and African American families. Recent data from the Department of Early Learning's Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WaKids) kindergarten readiness report shows that only approximately 35 percent of Hispanic and African American children are starting school with the six essential skills needed to succeed. Thrive by Five believes part of the reason for this is that many early learning efforts don't take cultural differences into account.

Thrive by Five recently launched a plan to Advance Racial Equity in Early Learning. With the grant from Thrive by Five, outreach workers from Tacoma Urban League and Centro Latino with knowledge about the different cultures will help evaluate and revise the early learning efforts in our community.

Thrive by Five's Racial Equity Theory of Change also seeks to intentionally decrease the opportunity gap for children of color, as will the collective work commissioned by the grant. The census also shows that the number of non-white, low-income children is also increasing. Poverty adds complexities that not only include more limited access to learning opportunities but a lack of basic needs such as food and a stable home.

United Way of Pierce County wants to Change the Story for our children by equipping parents to prepare their kids for school, making more opportunities available and helping provide for their basic needs. To learn more about the grant and our efforts in Early Childhood Development, visit

Friday, January 17, 2014

Best of Both Worlds - PIP's bilingual approach

by Kathryn McCarthy, Director of Donor Relations

It’s no secret, becoming a parent is scary.  No one is ever really prepared for the demands of having a newborn, having another human solely and completely dependent on you (and for that human to eat every two hours, around the clock.) Now imagine having a child born without the ability to hear.  How will my child learn to communicate?  How will I soothe my baby? Will they be able to go to school?  Will I ever be able to tell my child I love them?

Newborns go through a lot of screening tests in the first couple of days, including one for hearing. Doctors are able to detect hearing loss early. Children develop critical speaking and language skills in their first few years so early detection is important. When a child is diagnosed with hearing loss, there are resources within the community, including the Parent Infant Program (PIP) through the Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center (HSDC). HSDC, whose mission is to educate and empower families to communicate, is one of the agencies receiving funding from United Way of Pierce County.

Being born deaf should never be a barrier to success in school or later, in life.  United Way volunteers chose to fund PIP so that, right from the beginning, children are given the best chance to be ready for kindergarten.  PIP provides tools that enable deaf children to continue to learn and grow, and for their parents to understand their special needs.

While the Center serves all ages, PIP provides early intervention services, working with families of deaf, deaf-blind and hard of hearing children from birth to age three. The program utilizes a bilingual education approach with American Sign Language and spoken/written English. The PIP team works with families to establish early communication and strengthen bonding. Services are provided in a family’s natural setting to develop a child’s cognitive abilities and encourage acquisition of world knowledge using materials and toys within the homes. Providing infants and children with hearing loss early access to language builds a foundation for a lifetime of learning.

For the team at the Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center - PIP is personal.  Program Director Teresa Davenport has two siblings who went through the PIP program.  Director of Development, Cherylyn McRae’s son also went through the PIP program.  Both experienced firsthand how critical PIP was to their families. Their experiences lead them to their work today and drive them to make the program the best it can be for the children and families they serve.

PIP services include: Home visits, parent education and support groups, celebrate reading nights, bilingual kid’s club playgroups, American Sign Language (ASL) instruction, the nationally recognized Shared Reading Project and a resource library.

Serving children and their families living in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties, PIP was established in 1952. This nationally-recognized program utilizes a bilingual ASL and spoken/written English approach. Find our more: Parent Infant Program

Hope Has Arrived

by Maureen Faccia, Executive Vice President

I was recently invited to spend time at a great partner  agency that serves young children and their families in Pierce County:  Hope Sparks.  Led by CEO David Duea, Hope Sparks mission is to “strengthen families by inspiring courage and confidence to make a lasting change.”   While their programs provide valuable services for children like counseling, eating disorder recovery and early identification of learning disorders, it is the focus the programs have on the parents and caregivers that David feels creates lasting change for families.

Parenting can be hard!  Talk to anyone involved with raising and parenting a toddler and you’ll hear frustrations and uncertainty.  But when the parent or caregiver is also dealing with life stressors like job loss, mental illness, or challenges with a child with special needs, the added supports provided by programs at Hope Sparks make all of the difference in the world.  At Hope Sparks, staff members are there to help identify possible supports and services the families may need to help eliminate some of these stressors, including referring the parents to call South Sound 2-1-1.  They even have a boutique-style room called Hope’s Closet that low-income parents can shop to help provide food, clothing and accessories that can make a big difference.  

Hope Sparks uses evidenced-based practices such as Promoting First Relationships in some of their programs. By working with parents to establish realistic expectations for their child’s behavior at each age and stage, counselors use methods to encourage the parent to talk more clearly and positively with the child the entire relationship shifts and children thrive. 

Volunteers of United Way of Pierce County made the decision to fund Hope Sparks Healing Hearts program for the new 2014-2016 investment cycle. One aspect of this program is to offer Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where counselors follow clear steps to take the child through a healing process. I visited the play therapy room where children tell stories with figurines and a sand tray, arranging human and animal figures to tell a story about their life.  There is also a Pinterest-Style puppet theater, built by volunteers during United Way's Day of Caring, that children use to communicate through play with puppets. 
Parenting can be hard. But parents and caregivers are not alone. Thanks to caring, focused programs like this one, there is hope.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Midland Elementary's Year of the Book Brings School Together

by Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager - Early Grade Excellence

Families engaged, children reading, a wonderful children’s book author in attendance, fun activities, food, a principal with an open mind, volunteers and teachers with good ideas created a memorable culmination of the reading of “The Year of the Book” by every child attending Midland Elementary  and their family last Friday night. Two amazing woman, Michelle Leonard and Carson Fayth creatively crafted an opportunity for what they refer to as a “One Book, One School” experience.  Funds were provided to purchase the same book for every child and staff member in the school so that all children were able to read the same book with their families at home and in the classroom.  Every teacher in the school was engaged in having their class read the book and engage in learning activities connected to the book.  A culminating evening event for the whole family, included the author, teachers, Chinese food, book signing by the author, activities directly from the book, artifacts from China where the story occurred, and a great deal of fun for these families as they met and talked with the author, made origami, wrote their symbol year in Chinese, and participated in other projects and activities aligned with the book.
When we talk about getting our children to read, this activity was a profound example of a successful, engaging project.  The comfortableness and interest with which these families participated presented enthusiasm for their child’s learning as well as their own.  The interaction amongst everyone involved presented an amazing picture of true community.  Research says that “children spend their first three years of school learning to read, so that they can go forward in school reading to learn.”  Midland Elementary is doing a great job of making this a reality within their school community.  Great job!