United Way’s 'Cradle to Career' initiative impacts elementary schools across the Muncie Community

Longfellow Elementary School master teacher and instructional coach Faith Serf poses for a photo April 9 at Longfellow Elementary School in Muncie, Indiana. The Heart of Indiana United Way and Muncie Community Schools have partnered through several different programs to increase a child’s literacy skills. Mya Cataline, DN
Longfellow Elementary School master teacher and instructional coach Faith Serf poses for a photo April 9 at Longfellow Elementary School in Muncie, Indiana. The Heart of Indiana United Way and Muncie Community Schools have partnered through several different programs to increase a child’s literacy skills. Mya Cataline, DN

Stepping inside any elementary school classroom during independent reading time, it’s not uncommon to look out amidst a sea of wandering eyes flickering from line to line, discovering what happens when you give a mouse a cookie and how hungry a caterpillar can be.

However, amongst these children, there is a child who grows frustrated as they read alongside their peers. Their mind may bounce back and forth from the words on the page to that day’s recess activities, or perhaps the letters move on the page, the child unable to distinguish “dog” from “bog” in their story. They grow defeated as they ultimately fall behind their peers, struggling to comprehend their book at a state-sanctioned level. 

Reading doesn’t come easily to every child. 

Consistent biennial testing through 2019 from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) concluded two-thirds of U.S. children are unable to read with at-level proficiency. 

By 2022, the NAEP revealed the proficiency level among fourth graders to be nationally lower than in 2019 but higher than in 1998.

To mitigate this, the nonprofit organization, Heart of Indiana United Way, prioritizes the health, education, and income rates of a community to improve its overall quality of life, according to its website.  

While the organization is national, the mission of its Indiana branch extends to Muncie Community elementary schools, which have been partnered with United Way for about 20 years, said Ashley Breedlove, director of learning supports for United Way. 

During the past year, the organization launched its ‘Cradle to Career’ initiative, which has been implemented across the district’s elementary schools in a variety of programs to assist children of different grade levels.

The organization began its ‘Blast Off to Kindergarten’ program last spring. The program was designed to bring incoming kindergarteners into Muncie Community School (MCS) buildings and be comfortable in their classrooms early on, providing families with reading packets to extend learning through the summer months.

“We believe if students are encouraged to read at home, the likelihood of them being more successful in school is greater,” said Alison Quirk, MCS volunteer coordinator. 

However, both MCS and United Way recognize not all children may have the support and resources at home that are conducive to their learning and academic success, which is why the 20-year partnership is in constant search of ways to improve its impact.

The ultimate goal of the ‘Cradle to Career’ initiative is to increase a child’s literacy skills between kindergarten and third grade, ensuring that no child faces a resource deficit before it is time to take the statewide iRead-3 exam, creating a need for the organization’s Third Grade Level Reading campaign.

“Third grade is [a] pivotal moment in a child's education. At that point, the child should have foundational literacy skills that allow them to transition into reading new content and information to synthesize and make connections with,” Breedlove said.

She distinguished that from infancy to kindergarten, a child is learning how to read. Breedlove said from kindergarten through third grade, a child should be learning while reading, a delicate but vital transition that will shape the rest of a child’s life. 

“Our third grade program was hand-picked because of our high need to prepare our students for the iRead-3 assessment. United Way's support during this crucial year was a blessing,” said MCS’s Longfellow Elementary School master teacher and instructional coach, Faith Serf.

The launch of United Way’s ‘Cradle to Career’ initiative was largely fueled by the success of the organization’s already-existing Read United program, which pairs community volunteers with struggling readers in second and third grade, becoming “Den Mentors” of the classroom.

“During the program, our volunteers will read, discuss and write about the different books that they bring in to share with our students,” said Serf.

Quirk has volunteered for Read United throughout her two years at MCS. Her favorite book to read to students is “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” by Charlie Mackesy. 

“There's a quote in the book [where] the boy asks the horse, ‘What's the bravest thing you've ever done?’ The horse says, ‘I asked for help.’ Teaching our students that asking for help isn't a sign of weakness [is important]. It's a sign that you want to do better,” Quirk said.

The message from the book is applicable to people across all stages of life. She even gave a copy to her teenage daughter.

Quirk works to recruit other community volunteers across the district’s six schools, calling the experience and partnership with United Way “very rewarding.” Those interested in contributing can fill out an application through the MCS website, under the “volunteer and donation” page.

“What I love most about United Way is they offer wrap-around resources or connections to support our families' needs.  Their belief that it takes a village is evident,” said Serf.

Breedlove prides herself on being a member of an organization that values uniqueness and individuality within society and coming together for the greater good. Those values are evidently equally important to members of the Muncie community.

“People do want to help. There's a very strong emphasis in [Muncie’s] community on cultural wealth, and appreciating and valuing who we are as individuals, our history, our present situation, and our future goals and aspirations,” she said. 

When Breedlove, her team, and members of MCS and its surrounding community meet, United Way hosts listening sessions asking locals about their aspirations for future generations.

“Those conversations always lead to, ‘We want our children to be able to read and be successful later in life,’” Breedlove said.

‘Cradle to Career’ is a “relatively new” initiative that aims to accomplish this desire among the Muncie community. Breedlove cautioned that although change of such magnitude is attainable, it’s a never-ending goal.

“The community is going to continue to evolve, the needs will continue to change. There will be other things that need to be addressed or supported or celebrated,” Breedlove said.

She added this kind of powerful, impactful, generation-lasting change starts with a collaboration between people who have one common goal in mind, the kind of collaboration that exists today between Heart of Indiana United Way and MCS.

“Working with Muncie Community Schools is phenomenal … The work that is happening in MCS, and their commitment to being partners with the community families, is truly remarkable,” Breedlove said.

The commitment comes from a shared belief among Muncie locals. 

“Our community believes in lifting as we climb and I am thankful that the United Way is willing to be a part of our path.  Together, we will be better,” Serf said.

Contact Katherine Hill with comments at katherine.hill@bsu.edu .

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