In October of 2021, the John & Janice Wyatt Foundation introduced Dorchester County’s version of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort by various entities nationwide to ensure more children from low-income families experience educational excellence. It has three metrics for success: grade-level reading proficiency by third grade, readiness for kindergarten, and a decrease in chronic absenteeism. As director of programs for the Wyatt Foundation, Dr. Jymil Thompson has led Dorchester’s campaign, and he was eager to tell The Spy about the progress of their efforts.
With an eye toward tackling the campaign’s second metric, Thompson and the Wyatts looked seriously at implementing PreK-3, which posits that a child with two years of quality pre-kindergarten will be prepared for kindergarten. Then they collaborated with Dorchester County Public Schools on a pilot program at Sandy Hill Elementary School. According to Thompson, DCPS has been very cooperative with the PreK-3 program, though the foundation had to get the school system to trust that it would do what was promised. Eventually, DCPS realized PreK-3 wasn’t just a fad that would fade away.
“I think building that trust and fostering a good relationship was what was needed,” said Thompson, a member of the Talbot County Board of Education. “And I think, once we built that and we showed that we’re truly invested in the community by doing the PreK-3 pilot program, by doing the various other things that we do in the community, that bought us some trust.”
The Wyatt Foundation’s initial hope was that the first PreK-3 pilot would lead to others in the school system, and DCPS did just that once they had seen the value in the program. A second pilot was initiated at Hurlock Elementary, and two more were planned—one at Maple Elementary and the other back at Sandy Hill.
“This upcoming school year will be the first opportunity for those kids that started our PreK-3 pilot program in 2021 to take the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment,” said Thompson. “And then we should be able to see how effective two years of PreK is for those particular students.”
Regarding the third metric of the campaign, the results so far have not been as encouraging. The level of absenteeism this past school year did go down a couple of percentage points, but there is still a long way to go with chronic absenteeism. Various schools have had pockets of success, but others require new ways to help improve attendance. Thompson has been working with school system leaders to think of fresh incentives, which won’t have the same level of impact with all students.
“You have programs that will increase the attendance as a whole,” said Thompson, “but then you have other students who are chronically absent that require something a little bit more individualized. Giving them incentives isn’t going to work. They need something else more systematic and strategic just for that particular student.”
The attendance rate for DCPS stood this year at 85%. 90-95% would be preferable, but the school system wants to keep the base stable and not let it decrease while shooting for that higher aspiration. Unfortunately, the results are not broken down by the type of absence: an excused absence is still counted as an absence. And DCPS and the Wyatt Foundation need partners in the community to help figure out why those with continual unexcused absences are out so much. According to Thompson, it could be mental health, bullying, or the home environment. Once the reasons are established, plans can be developed to remediate or eliminate the problems keeping the kids out of school.
At the same time, Thompson has had much more tangible success with another initiative. Ready for K is a parent-engagement tool that sends text messages to area families, offering ideas for helping kids with academics and dealing with emotional issues.
“That’s actually been pretty good,” said Thompson, who sends the messages to 1,861 families, up from the early number of 1,400. “It’s been good because we extended that to the private daycare centers.”
Additionally, he and the Wyatt Foundation are no longer struggling so much with getting the word out about their program.
“I think that we have made tremendous progress as it relates to people or the community being aware of the foundation,” Thompson explained. “We’ve been able to bring in more partners, we’ve been able to do more marketing. We have a billboard on 50 [by McDonald’s], and we’ve been able to engage more businesses.”
He presented at the Hurlock Town Council and at the Lower Eastern Shore Mayors Association meeting. He spoke with the Cambridge City Council. He and the foundation have worked with some of their partners—such as the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, YMCA, Empowerment Center, and Dorchester County Public Library—on a summer reading challenge under the collective banner “All Together Now.” They even ordered T-shirts bearing that slogan.
“We’ve still got work to do, but it’s definitely moved farther along,” said Thompson.
Another collaboration important to the Wyatt Foundation is that between DCPS and the community, which Thompson and his colleagues facilitate. The campaign sponsors hold four meetings per month, covering school readiness, out-of-school time, attendance, and the activities of the steering committee. During those meetings, representatives of the various partner organizations discuss everything that’s going on in the community.
And, no doubt, they talk about their goals for the campaign. Thompson’s primary goal for the next school year is finalizing an initiative in which the University of Maryland will develop curriculum for PK-3. They’re also talking about doing teacher coaching and long-term assessment to see how effective the program can be for the private sector (kids who don’t start out in DCPS). The Wyatt Foundation will be helping to fund and implement these endeavors over a period of several years.
Thompson also wants to work on improving the cohesiveness of DCPS’s curriculum and the activities of out-of-school-time organizations. The idea would be to have the reading strategies of the providers be at least thematically similar so that it will be easier to identify the children’s educational deficiencies.
“That’s where I think the alignment is crucial,” said Thompson, “because you have two different entities that see the same group of kids, but their messaging may not be the same. You don’t want the message to be opposite.”
So, the Wyatt Foundation has made significant progress with its Campaign for Grade-Level Reading this year. But there is still much work to be done, and Dr. Jymil Thompson is untiringly passionate about it.