Children’s Literacy Initiative gets $21 million federal innovation grant

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia-based Children’s Literacy Initiative is one of 49 winners of so-called i3 grants from the U.S. Department of Education, awarded to school districts and non-profit organizations to promote educational innovation.

CLI, as it is known, has worked for more than 20 years to train teachers, caregivers and child care workers to in how to create literature-rich environments and promote reading skills in the youngest children. Even before getting a foothold in the School District, it worked with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and individual child care providers, often grandmothers or informal neighborhood centers, to run workshops and training sessions.

It now works in 50 classrooms in 33 Philadelphia schools, as well as in 65 Head Start classrooms around the city. It also has programs in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

The $650 million Investing in Innovation program, a companion to the better-known Race to the Top initiative, awarded grants in three categories: to scale-up already proven programs, validate promising programs, and develop new initiatives. The scaling up grants were the largest, up to $50 million.

CLI’s proposal received the highest score among the "validation" grantees. It will receive nearly $22 million over five years to expand its work in four districts — Philadelphia, Camden, Newark, and Chicago — and evaluate the results by comparing its schools to similar schools in a "control" group. CLI will be evaluated by the American Institutes for Research.

"We’re over the moon," said Linda Katz, CLI’s executive director. "Not only is it a validation of our work and all the people who have believed in us and supported us, it’s also a chance to show that the way to improve schools is by making a human capital investment in teachers. It’s not about punishing them, or giving them individual big bonuses, but about making sure they can do their job well."

Katz said that CLI will be putting model classrooms in kindergarten through third grades in 10 schools, while 10 other schools will be designated as the control group for the purposes of the research. "We’ll be working with the School District to identify the schools," Katz said. Those in the control group by definition will not receive the model classroom to preserve the integrity of the study, but Katz said, "as soon as we can, we’ll raise money" for the comparison schools.

Three other organizations with a sizable presence in Philadelphia were also awarded grants, which will be formally announced Friday by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

They are:

  • Diplomas Now, based at Johns Hopkins University, which got $30 million over five years to work in 60 schools in 14 districts, including Philadelphia, to validate its model of whole school reform and providing extra supports to middle and high school students.The goal is to raise dismal graduation rates in high-poverty, low-achieving schools where often fewer than half the students graduate to at least 80 percent.
  • KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), which started with two middle schools in Philadelphia and is expanding its presence here to include elementary and high school grades, received $50 million scale up grant. KIPP has schools in about 40 districts.
  • Teach for America also got a $50 million scale-up grant. Philadelphia is one of its sites.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah said no other city has a piece of so many grants.

"Philadelphia is the only city in the country in which you have four of the successful awards," Fattah said. "That’s another indication that we really are at the cutting edge in terms of education reform. These are four different programs that crisscross the city in a number of different ways, and the one thing in common is that they see Philadelphia as a rich opportunity to bring to scale programs that work."

Fattah has been involved with CLI since he was in the state legislature, and helped it get state grants to work with the city housing authority. "We worked in day care centers and early childhood sites to include literacy training for the employees," he said.

He is also a fan of Diplomas Now, which pioneered its model of working with middle school students in three Philadelphia schools: Feltonville Arts and Science, Jay Cooke, and Thurgood Marshall.

The program also was certified by the District as a partner in Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative and initially slated to work with West Philadelphia High School. That possibility was postponed for at least a year. Fattah said he hoped that the program would become West’s partner when the school’s new building opens in the 2011 school year.

Regardless of its future at West, the role of the program in Philadelphia should expand, Fattah said. "It’s been wildly successful where it has been in place," he said. "I want Philadelphia to take full advantage of the opportunity."

The District applied for but didn’t receive a smaller $5 development grant to reform its data management system. In addition, two development proposals from LaSalle and Drexel that would have trained science and math teachers also didn’t make the cut.

The i3 grants come with matching requirements of 20 percent. For CLI, that means it must raise $4.3 million by September 8. Katz said that $3.3 has already been raised from longtime supporters, including philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno. "We still have to raise another million," she said.

"We have a model to prove, and this will be the best way to do it, " Katz added. "The model is investing in teachers, and I think it’s important to show how powerful that can be."