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“Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.” -Frederick Douglass

I recently finished reading, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. In the autobiography, Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist, tells the story of his life as a former slave. He writes of the brutal violence and dehumanizing treatment he and his fellow slaves experienced, and the cunning, deceitful tricks slaveholders used to keep them in a state of hopelessness and compliance. Eventually, Douglass realizes that if he is ever going to have a chance to be his own master, he needs to learn how to read. It is in this pursuit that he eventually learns of the abolitionist movement and strengthens his resolve to make a daring escape. He goes on to play a powerful role in the downfall of slavery in the United States and serves as an inspiration to this day, and it began with learning how to read.

Fast forward from 1845 to 2020.

Right now we’re in the midst of a back-to-school season unlike any other, and the stress is palpable. I hear it in teachers' voices when they tell me about their return to the classroom and the seemingly impossible task of teaching kids at home, in school, and often both at once. Principals and administrators do not have it any easier. They are trying to figure out how best support their teachers, while keeping children safe, and managing parent expectations.

And that’s not even the half of it. As I write this, our world continues to be shrouded by a global pandemic that has killed over 1,000,000 people. I’m not alone in thinking that COVID-19 was going to be a blip on the radar, and that “back-to-school” would proceed as usual this fall. But now, we are looking at a full year of disruption, at minimum, and unknown ramifications that reach far beyond this school year. What will this “lost year” mean for our children’s education?

And then there are the wildfires, protests (most peaceful, but some set against the backdrop of rioting), racism, injustice, and police violence that continues unchecked. Oh, and it’s the 2020 presidential election year, an election that remains divisive. It is an understatement to say that 2020 has been a hard year. But you already know all this.

So, what to do? How to respond? Is there any good news? I believe there is, and it brings me full circle to literacy and reading.

The realities I described above are challenging, no doubt about it, but we each have a role to play to help make things better where and when we can. Not only that, we have the power to choose to do so. At Heggerty we are choosing to do this through our advocacy of literacy. Did you know that in a recent study, proficient third-grade readers were nearly five times more likely to graduate high school than their peers with below-basic-reading skills? Studies also show that a student’s reading level significantly affects their scores in subjects like math and science, as well as their college and career readiness.

As the story of Fredrick Douglass shows, great leaders face equally, if not more challenging circumstances than we are facing in 2020, and their rise was initially made possible through reading. We hear this story repeated across history. From Abraham Lincoln reading books in a log cabin, to Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene, to the now famous life of Alexander Hamilton for whom “it took a book collection to bring him to the mainland”, as my 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son sing. The ability to read has great power, and every child deserves the opportunity to learn. We are committed to this conviction, and that’s why at Heggerty, we’re taking action in three simple ways:

A renewed commitment. Our mission is to equip teachers with effective and engaging products and professional learning opportunities that help prepare and empower all students to become lifelong readers. If we truly believe literacy has the ability to empower children, open doors of opportunity, and change lives, this is a mission worth pursuing full steam ahead. We will continue to improve our products and services so that educators are able to teach foundational reading skills with confidence and fidelity.

A pioneer mindset. Dr. Heggerty was a pioneer and his curriculum has withstood the test of time. For the past 15 years his phonemic awareness curriculum has been used in thousands of districts around the world, and we believe it’s the missing link in many literacy programs. And while the principles of reading may remain constant, the research is evolving, and we plan to be ready and willing to evolve with it. Like Dr. Heggerty, we will continue to learn and try to find even better ways to make learning to read possible and available to all.

A community partner. My company is in a community that borders the city of Chicago, which like many urban areas, is beset by inequality, violence, and an underfunded, struggling education system. Our team is made up of many former teachers who understand the reality of this up close and personal. We believe our curriculum can help, but we also know we can do more to support our local community. Moving forward we are committed to supporting local literacy and education non-profit organizations. For us, this isn’t about checking off the “charity box”, we want to find ways to further expand and multiply our impact as we address the literacy gap. We believe that providing support and resources to effective organizations approaching the problem from different angles is one way to do that.

We realize that literacy is not the only answer – we live in a complicated world where the problems run deep – but we believe this problem is one we can make a significant contribution towards addressing and solving. My colleague, Kemi, says she thinks of the ability to read in the same way she thinks about access to clean drinking water – they are both vital for survival and for people to reach their potential. I think that is right, and our team at Heggerty is proud to be pursuing a mission that can bring some hope and empower children as readers, some of whom may go on to join the ranks of Fredrick Douglass.

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