A philanthropic group wants to improve early learning in Dorchester

By P. Ryan Anthony, Special for Dorchester Banner

After a successful career in technology and software, many people would choose to sit back and relax. But not John Wyatt. When he sold his sixth business in 2016, he spoke with his wife, Jan, about the next steps.

“Our kids had just graduated from college or were on their way, so we knew they would be fine,” he explained. “And [Jan] said, ‘Well, what about all the kids who didn’t get the benefits?’

It was an idea Wyatt could embrace. He had enjoyed the high-quality education that was the norm in his native Australia, so he was unprepared for the shock of discovering the inherent inequalities in the American school system when he came here in 1978.

“We said, ‘What if we could level the playing field for kids who don’t have those advantages? ‘” Wyatt continued. “And we built the foundation specifically to do that, basically to raise the kids who were struggling and trying to succeed in the school system.”

Founded in July 2018, The John & Janice Wyatt Foundation (J2W) makes significant grants and works with communities in need to develop evidence-based solutions. Deciding to focus on places where there might be useful engagement, the Wyatts chose to invest in Fairfax, Virginia, where they live most of the time; Winchester, Virginia, where foundation director Matthew Peterson lives; and Dorchester County, where the Wyatts bought a second home in 2015.

“When we looked at the challenges Dorchester faced, we found it all,” said John Wyatt. “My conclusion was, if we want to do something truly sustainable, it has to start with the kids, because that’s the future.”

Thus, they focused on the educational needs of young children. And they knew they wanted a collaborator who could bring the community and the school system together. Enter Jimmy Thompson.

With master’s degrees from Trinity and Howard universities, Thompson began his career teaching special education. After serving as vice-principal at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs, he came here in 2017 to become principal at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge. J2W hired him to be its Director of Programs, and he proved to be a hard worker with a commitment to making the foundation’s vision a reality.

“Anything I see that I believe in, I’m going to commit to doing it any way I can,” Thompson said.

Once the team was in place, they strategized around the Reading in Schools Campaign, a nationwide collaborative effort that was launched in 2010 to ensure the academic success of a more children from low-income families.

“Our conclusion was that if we just focused on getting kids reading at grade level in third grade, and then making sure they didn’t fall off the wagon by the time they finished middle school, we would have picked them up. and moved them well on their way,” Wyatt explained. “If they can read proficiently in third grade, they can learn a little on their own and not depend on the teacher telling them everything.”

That decided, Thompson organized a group of nonprofits interested in sponsoring the campaign and willing to spend time and effort deciding which programs could be tested. J2W launched their version of the campaign for grade level reading in Dorchester County on October 21, 2021. The first program they seriously considered implementing was PreK-3, which posits that a child who has two years of grade pre-kindergarten learning will be ready for kindergarten.

So, they have collaborated with Dorchester County Public Schools on a PK-3 pilot program that will show results next year. In the meantime, Hurlock Elementary School has added its own PK-3 pilot and is planning two more in the near future. According to Wyatt, the program was adapted so quickly by the generally slow school system because they saw the difference in the children.

“We were really excited about it,” he said.

The School Reading Campaign has three measures of success: third grade proficiency, kindergarten readiness, and reduced chronic absenteeism.

“I don’t think parents are really aware of the impact truancy has on school performance,” Thompson said. “When I was headmaster at Mace’s Lane I had pupils who were absent and they were taken to truancy tribunal. The truancy tribunal will not force parents to bring their children to school, as it is a punitive measure.

Instead, J2W works with local businesses to offer incentives to schools with a high percentage of attendance. They’ve seen this work before in Winchester, where the promise of ice cream has made a huge difference.

They also know that another way to fight absenteeism is to provide parents with useful information. They just launched a parent engagement tool called Ready for K, which currently sends text messages to over 1,400 families in the area. The texts three times a week contain ideas to help children with their studies and deal with emotional problems. J2W plans to expand Ready for K to private daycares and early learning centers.

But none of this will be effective without the trust of the community. Thompson believes this requires breaking down barriers one at a time.

“I really think it has to happen at the micro level, with individual people or small groups,” he said.

Wyatt added, “If you look at the dynamics of any PTA, it’s personal. These are the relationships between parents and teachers.

Now J2W just needs to spread the word to everyone. Although they encouraged their collaborators and sponsors to help them, public relations proved to be a challenge. But Wyatt and Thompson know that the school system, grateful but so far passive, must champion the program with the community.

“I remember my mother or my elders saying that education used to be a village mentality,” Thompson said. “For example, everyone in the community had the responsibility for education. This is what we are trying to come back to. »

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