Through the Strauss Literacy Initiative, families, teachers, and partners are reimagining opportunities for struggling readers at all ages to uncover many often undiagnosed with this learning difference.
SARASOTA, FL – Thanks to an adult who lived most of her whole life unaware of a dyslexia diagnosis, early efforts are underway in Sarasota and Manatee counties to help struggling readers become proficient and identify those with learning differences so learners of all ages can access much-needed resources. The Strauss Literacy Initiative, managed by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, is bringing together nonprofits, schools, and education partners to significantly influence professional awareness about literary challenges like dyslexia and positively impact families across the region.
Named for the late Patricia Strauss and her husband, Ira, who helped his wife receive a dyslexia diagnosis late in life, the initiative is already uncovering meaningful results and providing a continuum of services for students at three local organizations: Visible Men Academy, St. Mary Academy, and State College of Florida. In its early stages, the initiative has invested $339,000 to enrich these pilot partners.
“Working with these partners is the very important tip of an iceberg when it comes to providing students and their families the resources they need to become proficient readers and ultimately reach their full potential,” says Kirsten Russell, Vice President of Community Impact at the Community Foundation. “Often a dyslexia diagnosis is very individual and difficult to attain. By working directly with a school’s leaders, educators, and families, we want to learn how to bring this awareness – and opportunities – to many more families over time.”
Nonprofit Partners Provide a Continuum of Services
At Visible Men Academy – a public, tuition-free charter school in Bradenton and the inaugural partner of the initiative – the work began in earnest December 2020 with a distribution of backpacks, books, and puzzles to promote reading and learning gains over students’ holiday break. Since then, funding from The Ira and Patricia Strauss Fund for Children's Literacy has partnered with EarlyBird Education to provide a comprehensive assessment for all its Kindergarten students to identify reading issues early on. The partnership has also bolstered professional development for teachers and school staff, as well as family engagement activities.
These efforts ensure struggling readers receive evidenced-based instruction that is explicit, systematic, and inclusive of multi-sensory education and ultimately create an individualized program for specialized services. By the end of the school year in May 2021, three out of eleven students – 27% of the kindergarten class – were recommended for additional services that will help improve their reading proficiency.
Over the spring of 2021, the Initiative expanded to St. Mary Academy – a K-8 school for diverse learners serving Sarasota, Bradenton, and Venice – where funding will support scholarships for students with dyslexia. To meet the needs of these students, teachers will participate in Orton-Gillingham training, a direct and multisensory way to teach literacy for readers with learning disabilities.
"Our students are best supported when teachers have the expertise to meet each child's unique needs,” says Russell. “Professional development that emphasizes highly explicit and systematic teaching inclusive of all important literacy components is essential. Our current pilot programs already demonstrate clear student impact with an undeniable boost of confidence and learning enthusiasm that empowers them to reinforce their own literacy skills at school and at home with their families.”
Early learners are not the only focus of the Strauss Literacy Initiative, however. At the postsecondary level, the State College of Florida will direct assistance to strengthen its Disability Resource Center in identifying, evaluating, and accommodating adult college students with dyslexia. These additional resources will help students better understand their disability and utilize tools that will help them through college and beyond.
These partnerships are the first of several to come as the Initiative explores other local organizations who align with the Community Foundation’s longstanding education work, including with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national movement to empower children to achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.
“When these remarkable partnerships presented themselves, we were fortunate enough to directly step in and provide guidance, thanks to our decades of experience reaching across generations,” says Russell. “Our hope is that as these programs develop and produce results, we will have the expertise and resources necessary to foster opportunities that can then spread across our community, with the goal remaining the same – to help students of all ages along their learning journey, from pre-K through post-secondary education.”
The Vision Guiding the Strauss Literacy Initiative
Years of in-depth research have culminated in these collaborative efforts powered by the Strauss Literacy Initiative. In late 2019, the Community Foundation began conducting interviews with leading experts, engaging local stakeholders, and understanding legislative requirements around screening to identify best practices for diagnosing and supporting students with dyslexia. The result? An alignment of strategic grantmaking with a handful of partners that will support early identification and intervention and reader success programs, in addition to developing family supports.
The Initiative’s vision came from local philanthropists Ira and Patricia “Patti” Strauss, whose life experiences guided them to the Community Foundation. There, they created a charitable legacy that would ensure children with reading challenges, especially dyslexia, could receive the necessary support to read proficiently for their age, just as Patti had been helped during her life. Established in 2017 with a $23 million endowment, The Ira and Patricia Strauss Fund for Children's Literacy now serves children from birth through college by providing phonics instruction programming, early diagnosis of reading challenges, and continuously accessing and improving methods to address community learning needs.
To learn more about education and literacy programs supported by the Community Foundation, visit www.cfsarasota.org/community-impact/empowerment-and-success.
About the Community Foundation of Sarasota County: The Community Foundation of Sarasota County is a public charity founded in 1979 by the Southwest Florida Estate Planning Council as a resource for caring individuals and the causes they support, enabling them to make a charitable impact on the community. With assets of $421 million in more than 1,500 charitable funds, the Community Foundation awarded grants and scholarships totaling $48.9 million dollars last year in the areas of education, the arts, health and human services, civic engagement, animal welfare and the environment. Since its founding, the Community Foundation has been able to grant more than $323 million to area nonprofit organizations to our community thanks to the generosity of charitable individuals, families, and businesses. For more information, visit www.CFSarasota.org or call (941) 955-3000.