It was two years after Nancy Kerr and four other Tri-Citians formed a nonprofit aimed at ensuring all Mid-Columbia third-graders were at or above reading level that she knew their efforts were paying off, she said.
A New York agency surveyed the region. Among the questions it asked participants was whether they had heard The Mid-Columbia Reading Foundation’s slogan “read with your child 20 minutes a day” and if they agreed with it.
“It was, like, 98 percent of people in the Tri-Cities had seen our message and agreed with it,” Kerr told the Herald. “Right then we knew we had something that was catching hold, and we ran with it.”
Kerr will retire April 30 as the president of what is now The Children’s Reading Foundation, the national nonprofit that grew out of the organization she helped found in 1996 in Kennewick.
The former high school teacher will remain on the national organization’s board. The foundation is going strong, and it is a good time for her to step away and turn her gaze to helping out the local chapter of the organization, she said.
Rick Donahoe, the national foundation’s business and grant manager and a member of the Richland School Board, was named her successor by the national board.
The foundation has grown rapidly during the past 19 years to include chapters in 30 states. Kerr also led efforts with related programs Team READ and READY! for Kindergarten to further equip young children with the tools to do well in school and, ultimately, in their lives.
“Kids are coming in with more exposure to literacy,” said Kennewick Assistant Superintendent Greg Fancher. “It’s been a great partnership for us.”
The drive to start the foundation started as an effort to reduce high school dropouts, Kerr said. Research at the time pointed to a strong correlation between reading proficiency at the third-grade level and the eventuality that a student would graduate high school, leading her and the other founders to focus their efforts on reading in Mid-Columbia elementary schools.
Work started in the Tri-City school districts and in the Kiona-Benton City, Finley, Prosser, Columbia-Burbank and North Franklin districts. But it was only two years after the foundation began that a national board was created in response to requests to take the program outside the region.
Team READ, a tutoring initiative, and READY! for Kindergarten, which offered classes to parents of young children to help them prepare for formal schooling, came only a few years later.
More and more chapters were added each year. Hundreds of thousands of books have been distributed through the foundation’s efforts, and numerous children helped by volunteers. The national foundation now has an annual budget of $2 million, and its efforts have led to awards and accolades.
“To have it go coast to coast and border to border, that was never our intention but we’re glad it happened,” Kerr said.
Kennewick teachers had called for greater parent and community involvement in schools around the time the foundation began and as the Kennewick School District began working on third-grade literacy, Fancher said. The foundation’s message calling on parents to read with their kids has had a big impact and its kindergarten readiness efforts have also been crucial.
“She has just been a tireless advocate for kids,” Fancher said. “She’s been a driving force behind literacy in the region.”
Donahoe has big shoes to fill with Kerr’s departure but he’s ready for the task, he said. The retired engineer has been with the foundation since 2013 and helped secure two Innovative Approaches to Literacy grants worth a total of $6.67 million.
The national foundation recently opened its first international chapter in Canada, and there are discussions about developing an app to better reach technology-savvy children, Donahoe said.
“I feel confident that we have a clear direction and clear values,” he said.