For the Love of Reading

By |2021-04-28T15:02:02-07:00April 26th, 2021|Categories: Early Childhood Success|

For the Love of Reading

Written by: Maria Kelly Horsley, Impact Manager, UWSD

It is April 2021, and we find ourselves one year into a pandemic that has rocked our lives. The locus of learning has quite literally migrated outside of the classroom and has plopped down into the chaotic dynamics of our homes. Routines disrupted, we are likely spending an abundance of quality time with our loved ones but under extremely stressful circumstances – schools and families merging as equal partners in the difficult work of educating our youth.

Although school reopening is on the horizon, in-home learning promises to be a continued and integral aspect of schooling. And a return to the classroom for so many will not quickly erase a year of staggered and inequitable access to high-quality learning experiences. At the start of the 20-21 school year, students of color were about three to five months behind in learning, and by the fall of 2021 were more likely than their white peers to be learning remotely and less likely to have live access to teachers and the appropriate technology to log into their learning environment.[1]

The stakes are high.  From mounting studies of summer reading loss, we already know that reading loss compounds over time: high school graduation can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading abilities at the end of third grade – a person who is not a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.[2] It is now also predicted that COVID-related cumulative learning loss could be substantial, exacerbating already significant opportunity gaps and resulting in students of color being up to twelve months behind by June 2021.[3] Because children living in low-income communities experience disproportionate levels of reading loss when not engaging in formal on-site schooling during the summers – opportunities increasingly stifled under the heavy veil of the pandemic – additional resources and supports are urgently needed to provide equitable access to high-quality learning experiences.

United Way of San Diego County (UWSD) and partner organizations heed the call. Since March of 2020, UWSD has reimagined our initiatives in response to evolving community needs. We brought our partners together to transition Readers in the Heights, a typically in-person, summer camp-like experience, to an at-home, family-focused program that aimed to build strong family reading habits and excitement around reading. By aligning partner goals, we found that gains made over the course of the initiative were maintained or increased three months later; at three months post-implementation, a higher percentage of parents continued to report that their child enjoys reading, that they feel comfortable using technology to support their child in learning, and that they read to their child every day. Interviews with families revealed that they bonded around reading and changed their at-home family reading habits; they observed growth in their children’s interest in reading and comprehension, learning more about their child’s abilities in the process. All components were designed and evaluated in accordance with evidence-based family engagement literacy strategies and guided by the expertise of Words Alive.

Our long-time partner, Traveling Stories, also had to pivot, quickly adapting to the needs of the community and calls for in-home support by providing a joyful connection to the world of books in difficult times. Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced the closure of their StoryTents, a staple at farmer’s markets and malls, but they have since recreated the magic of those intimate reading hubs. Their new program matches children entering kindergarten through second grade with reading mentors for weekly, one-on-one reading sessions via video. During sessions, children read and chat about books with their mentors and earn virtual Book Bucks, which can be used to buy prizes through the organization’s new online prize shop. While the program is still new, it is already making a positive difference. One parent said, “Thank you so much for this program! My husband and I almost choked up seeing (our son) so excited during the meeting. He DOES NOT get excited over anything that is closely related to schoolwork. But this somehow feels different to him. Love it.”

Let’s get to work. Despite the approaching return to classrooms, learning while at home will continue to be an essential component of our children’s education – our concept of the traditional, brick-and-mortar classroom as the principal space for formal learning has been disrupted, and the ability to provide impactful learning experiences during persistent-pandemic-times hinges on strong school-family-community partnerships and authentic relationships. Additionally, there is a need to conceptualize literacy as more than just reading. The joy and connection that can accompany the practice will drive sustained gains over time and is desperately needed in a time of heightened concern over our youths’ socioemotional wellbeing. Through our aligned partner efforts, we have learned that what works is to:

  • Create opportunities for families to have fun with reading; elevate and celebrate the critical role of families as both learners and educators.
  • Emphasize strengthening literacy and learning habits that can be generalized across locations.
  • Look beyond reading assessment data to build impactful interventions and experiences.

UWSD is dedicated to promoting a love of reading in our community and striving to fill home libraries across the county with high-quality books that speak to and inspire a diverse community of readers. This March, UWSD hosted its Annual Read Across America Celebration, partnering with Warwick’s, GEICO, Holman Enterprises, and Noble Street Advisors in a month-long book donation drive. Nearly 800 books were donated, and those will be distributed to families most in need.

Please join us in supporting year-round literacy efforts across San Diego County and spark the love of reading: Donate Here.


[1] Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannnis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020). COVID-19 and learning loss – disparities grow and students need help. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-learning-loss-disparities-grow-and-students-need-help

[2] National Research Council. 1998. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/6023.

[3] Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannnis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020). COVID-19 and learning loss – disparities grow and students need help. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-learning-loss-disparities-grow-and-students-need-help

Child Literacy: Why All San Diegans Should Be Invested

By |2021-04-13T12:40:10-07:00March 25th, 2021|Categories: Early Childhood Success|

Child Literacy: Why All San Diegans Should Be Invested

two children reading together

Literacy is the ability to read and write, fundamental skills children will use to accomplish their schoolwork as well as for basic life skills. Unfortunately, not everyone starts with a level playing field. Kids with highly-involved parents, access to books, and more, are at an advantage.  Many children, often from low-income families, do not have the same opportunities to build their literacy skills. Early literacy skills are later applied when learning to read and write in school. Education is one of UWSD’s focuses, and together with our partners, we are working to improve child literacy in San Diego County. Learn more about why child literacy is so important, what we are doing, and how you can get involved.

Why is Early Literacy Important?

Early literacy starts in the first three years of a child’s life, beginning the moment they’re born. Reading, rhyming, singing, and talking are all ways that kids’ literacy can be developed. This early development is highly correlated with school achievement. Furthermore, developing literacy skills such as developing imagination, teaching how to deal with fear, identifying emotions, and much more. Reading plays a role in all aspects of child development, including talking, thinking, reasoning, playing and emotional development are interdependent.

It’s also progressive, which means that the skills keep building on each other. Missing a critical milestone puts a child at risk of not reaching the next one.

Literacy Extends Beyond School Success to Life in General

Reading is a critical skill, not just for students in school, but for overall access and satisfaction in life.

  • Getting a complete education leads to good-paying jobs, which contributes to family stability. Studies show third grade reading achievement leads to on-time high school graduation. In turn, graduation leads to a better paying job and or college, both of which contribute to future family stability.
  • The ability to read is critical for life in general, where you may need to read to understand information about voting, housing, banking, emergencies, and more.

Children Living in Poverty Are at a Disadvantage

Not everyone has the same opportunity to develop literacy skills. For example:

  • Studies have shown that by age 5, half of children living in poverty are not academically or socially ready for school.
  • By fourth grade, the divide increases with 80 percent of low-income children reading below grade level.
  • In San Diego County, 80% of White and Asian 3rd graders read at grade level, but only 50% of their Brown and Black classmates do.

This is why we must commit to reducing racial and economic inequities. That way, we can elevate every child and family toward a brighter future. 

Child Literacy in San Diego: Pandemic Struggles

Before schools closed due to the pandemic, 45% of third-graders in San Diego County were not reading at grade level. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected families challenged to make ends meet, in turn threatening the educational success of children. Whether it’s online or hybrid learning, many families have been forced to adapt to new systems and routines,” says UWSD President & CEO Nancy L. Sasaki. “Before the pandemic, many San Diego families were already struggling to meet reading requirements due to lack of time and access to resources. We know the difficulties our community is facing when it comes to reading at home.”

On average, students could lose five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind. While studies show that enhancing a child’s access to books at home has a significant impact on their long-term learning, many students in San Diego County do not have enough age-appropriate books in their home libraries.

What Helps Improve Child Literacy Outcomes?

  • Research by the U.S. Department of Education found that “children who are read to at least three times a week by a family member are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading compared to children who are read to less than three times a week.”
  • Research in Social Stratification and Mobility also found that “children growing up in homes with many books get three years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class.”

What Is UWSD Doing to Support Child Literacy?

UWSD identifies where students are struggling using data analytics, and works together with partners to develop interventions. Our work includes:

  • Aligning our partners to identify barriers to learning so every student has the opportunity to thrive – regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or zip code. Together, we develop solutions such as: improving parent confidence, helping children enjoy reading, providing books, facilitating hands-on activities, and much moreEfforts to reduce the Summer reading gap, when on average, 3rd-5th graders lose 20% of their reading skills 
  • Most recently, celebrating Read Across America with a book donation drive in partnership with Warwick’s of La Jolla, sponsored by Geico, Holman Enterprises, and Noble Street Advisors to expand in-home libraries for students in our community

How Can You Get Involved?

We are a community of donors, volunteers, and leaders committed to bringing people together to create a safe & equitable community. Join us as we work together to solve important issues, such as inequities in child literacy:

United We Can Be The Change in Our Community! 


UWSD’s Strategy for the Future, EDICT 2030, Aims to Reduce Disparities 

By |2021-04-23T11:55:04-07:00November 12th, 2020|Categories: Early Childhood Success, Family Stability, Youth Success|

UWSD’s Strategy for the Future, EDICT 2030, Aims to Reduce Disparities

A montage of different people

This year, we have been celebrating the 100 year anniversary of United Way of San Diego County. 100 years is epic, particularly in a world where changes happen by the hour. What hasn’t changed is our commitment to ensuring that every child, young adult, and family – regardless of zip code or income – has the chance to succeed.

It is clear to us at UWSD that the stability of the family plays a critical role in early childhood development. We’re also keenly aware that there are many families in San Diego who can’t afford to meet their basic needs. This scarcity cripples a child’s ability to learn. As a leader in our community, we are bringing together partners to align goals and leverage resources and expertise. That way, we can reconstruct systems and resolve inequities to transform lives.

This is what we have valued for the past 100 years and what we will continue to value for the next 100.

2020 has been an unprecedented year, to say the least. The public health and economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 and the proliferation of the social justice movement when George Floyd was killed at the hands of police have illuminated the truth that our most marginalized communities are not included in the American Dream.

As our nation works to respond and recover to these issues, we must also reimagine our future and rebuild our community in a way that ensures a more equitable society. Now more than ever, we must realize that we are all in this together – and it will take all of us working TOGETHER to overcome the systemic barriers that have led to inequities in our communities.

That leads us to our strategy for the future – “Mind The Gap: EDICT 2030”. EDICT stands for “Ending Disparities In Communities not Thriving”. It is our north star and an audacious goal. And the work cannot be done alone.

What do we mean by “gap”? Let’s use data to describe it:

  • 80% of White and Asian third graders read at grade level, but only 50% of their Brown and Black classmates do.
  • Nearly 24,000 students in grades K-12 live in households that are doubled up with family or friends because they are unable to maintain housing on their own. This can be uncomfortable, make it difficult to learn, and can impact education success. It’s not just about a child not reading at grade level. Students are facing challenges like this and if there’s instability in the household it can impact a child’s ability to learn and thrive.
  • Black and Hispanic students are twice as likely as white students to have received no live contact with teachers while learning remotely.
  • Students on average could lose five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021; students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students.
  • 31% of San Diegans are food insecure. When families don’t have access to food, that becomes their first priority and daily stressor, making it difficult to focus on other important tasks like finding a job or getting their kids to school. If parents or guardians don’t know where their next meal is coming from, this can also significantly impact a student’s education success.

These few data points are evidence that today’s pandemics have a vastly disproportionate impact on our Black and Brown kids. “Mind The Gap” is all about ending these disparities. With a commitment to racial equity and justice, our entire organization pledges to achieve this vision.

Our team at UWSD doesn’t only IMAGINE this; we are the CATALYST for this. And we’re doubling down with our partners for solutions. Our super power is elevating the best ways to support early childhood success and family stability built on proven practices and solid data, along with our partners’ expertise. We reimagine a future for our region where “The Gap” closes by 2030.

Will you join us?

Updated April 2021

Every Student, Every Day Intern Stories: When Safe Space Shuts Down, Who Takes Attendance?

By |2021-05-27T09:53:56-07:00April 15th, 2020|Categories: Early Childhood Success|

Every Student, Every Day Intern Stories: When Safe Space Shuts Down, Who Takes Attendance?

Staying hopeful for Every Student, Every Day

“I was drawn to United Way’s Every Student, Every Day initiative because of the level of autonomy it provided,” said Charitee Fereti, when asked about her decision to join the cohort of interns last September.

Autonomy was just what United Way of San Diego County (UWSD) wanted in their interns. “When we interviewed Charitee, we immediately knew she’d be an asset to our school sites,” said United Way’s Impact Manager, Nina Ghatan, MSW. “She was experienced, confident, and had children of her own—children who, by the way, both had perfect attendance last year—so we believed all these traits would help her more easily connect with students and caregivers.”

For this attendance-intervention initiative, now in its sixth year in schools around the county, UWSD recruits and places college/graduate-level interns in elementary schools to provide case management support for chronically absent students and their families. With logistical support from the school site, and clinical supervision and weekly coaching from United Way, interns work to understand the barriers to attendance that students and families face, such as instability in housing, food, and transportation.

“Many of my classmates didn’t have hands-on experience until later on,” explains Charitee, who was recently accepted into the accelerated MSW program at San Diego State University. “I’m a very hands-on kind of person, so this opportunity was ideal for me.”

Unfortunately, “hands-on” is no longer an option for Charitee because of school closures due to COVID-19, but she’s hopeful that the work she accomplished over the last six months will be an anchor for seven-year-old Alisa.

When she first arrived at City Heights’s Joyner Elementary in September, Charitee noticed Alisa’s resistance to school. “Every day was a battle for her to separate from her grandmother. Each morning she came to school she started crying. I met with each of her teachers—as I do for all the students on my caseload—to find out more about their performance in class and get a sense of what I can expect. I learned that Alisa had been struggling with attendance for a while and that she would cling to her grandmother. I thought, ‘Hmmm… what is it about school that makes her anxious?’ ”

When Alisa did come to school, she kept her head down, talked quietly, and avoided questions. “She was shy and reserved,” Charitee explains. “I knew I would need a different approach to establish a rapport.” During her weekly meetings with Alisa, Charitee gave her the option to do other tasks while they talked. “Sometimes it was Playdoh, other times it was coloring.” It worked. Over time, Alisa began to feel safe and open up. “It turns out she actually liked school—she’s a smart, responsible young girl. The issue was she didn’t want to leave her house because she worried she’d never see her grandmother again.”

Alisa’s grandmother Rosa, also her guardian, recently started having health problems. This increased the little girl’s anxiety over daily separations. Alisa’s mother, who has remarried and lives in Mexico, visits occasionally. Alisa has no relationship with her biological father and considers her grandfather Roland her dad. An aunt and uncle also live with them.

“Alisa has experienced more loss than most students,” Charitee explains. “I’m not sure these feelings are expressed at home, so I became that person who she could talk to, someone she could trust.” The more she met with Alisa, the more Charitee learned. “She’s only in first grade but she’s very mature—probably because she’s already been through a lot.” As their time together continued, Charitee noticed marked improvement. Alisa was excited to go to school and looked forward to talking with Charitee each week. “I became a comfort zone. She loved talking about her family and told me all about them.” Alisa’s grandmother, a housekeeper, often brought her granddaughter to work. “Sometimes she helped her grandma with the cleaning, and sometimes she swam in the client’s pool. That was a big deal for her.”

In spite of this upbeat story, Charitee notes life has been more difficult for Alisa lately. “She recently lost her great-grandmother, who only spoke Spanish so Alisa was teaching her English. She said she’ll miss her but she took the death in stride. Still, it’s a lot to process for a seven-year-old.”

More processing and coping awaits this first-grader: Though her attendance improved, she was still considered chronically absent, and with the current status of local schools in flux, Charitee wonders what will become of Alisa and all her progress.

Since early March, intern instruction has varied based on university. SDSU’s social work interns, like Charitee, began working remotely and are no longer required to complete additional hours at school sites, which are now grappling with the reality of educating their students through distance learning. And though she understands this necessity, she still worries. “For a lot of students, school is their safe space.” And for Alisa, Charitee was her safe space.

“To see this girl go from being withdrawn to open and excited to see me—it was so heartening. Though I respect the school’s directive, I’m determined to follow-up with Alisa.” In the wake of the unknown, Charitee knows coordinated efforts between schools and community partners, families and interns, will become even more critical—and more challenging. But she isn’t ready to join the list of those who have abandoned little Alisa. “I have my own children and my own plans, but I’m not giving up on her.”

“The timing is interesting,” adds UWSD’s Nina Ghatan. “Over the past year, our ESED team has been working on the next iteration of the initiative for the 2020-21 school year. A component of this updated model includes enhancing linkages between community-based organizations and our school sites. We’re hopeful that a more coordinated approach will lead to improved outcomes for students and families.”

UWSD’s Every Student, Every Day initiative offers a set of interventions to increase school attendance and close the achievement gap by facilitating partnerships between schools, universities, community providers, families, and students. United Way collaborates closely with elementary schools in the San Diego region to improve outcomes for local children and their families. Every Student, Every Day has consistently produced positive results for children and families, including increased attendance for participating students.

Every Student, Every Day Intern Stories: The Trials And Triumphs Of Five-Year-Old Twins

By |2021-05-27T09:51:19-07:00March 26th, 2020|Categories: Early Childhood Success|

Every Student, Every Day Intern Stories: The Trials And Triumphs Of Five-Year-Old Twins

When Cindy and Max came onto his caseload, Kevin Valle, United Way’s Every Student, Every Day (ESED) intern at Vista La Mesa Academy in Lemon Grove, discovered one reason why the five-year-old twins weren’t in school: their family lacked reliable transportation. That was only one issue contributing to their chronic absence.

By standing out in the front of the school each day to welcome students, both Kevin and Chris Walsh, the school’s social worker, noticed that the twins were coming in late and quite upset, having walked to the bus stop, taken the public bus, and then walked from the bus stop to school. This was clearly a difficult task for this recovering mother wtih two five-year-olds.

Fortunately, Mr. Walsh knew of a family that had also struggled with recovery in the past and now were driving a van to school each day. Mr. Walsh approached this family to ask if they could provide transportation for another family going through the difficult, early stages of recovery. The social work team utilized United Way’s  ESED funds to purchase gas cards as an incentive for this family to continue bringing the twins to school each day. The reward of helping this family, along with a $25 gas card each month, was enough to make these two families a match.

Susan, the van-driving grandmother, enlisted the help of her 7th-grade granddaughter, Juliette, who was also vital in helping Cindy and Max to school everyday. “She supported the family by knocking on their door every morning to pick them up; she’s their alarm clock.” Juliette also comes around after school to collect the twins so they can all get picked up together.

Regular attendance has helped stabilize the twins’ attendance, but their progress has been far from linear. Initially, Kevin saw the twins together, but now he alternates weeks. “Max has always been a bit more steady,” Kevin notes. Cindy would often have outbursts—“running around the school, shrieking and yelling, avoiding everyone”—and it would take several hours to calm her down. Slowly, Cindy improved, but she reverted to old behavior during the Thanksgiving holiday. “The fallback happened over break, where the children don’t have much structure. That may have triggered something.”

Over the weeks and months since then, with Kevin’s regular meetings with each child, they’ve gradually gotten back on track. “Back in September, they wouldn’t respond if they were asked to clean up. They didn’t have the will: their brain chemistry wouldn’t allow them to make decisions for themselves. In stressful times, the twins enter a panic mode and everything shuts down. Now they’ll do it.”

At home, their mother’s addiction may have made it difficult to impose structure. She often ignored the children, who were left to do whatever they wanted, Kevin reports. Now, they have a structure they can rely on, even on the weekends, thanks to Susan and Juliette. What’s more, the twins’ mother has been cooperative and helpful, also picking up her children when she can to alleviate some of Susan’s commute.

Six months into the school year, the twins’ 100% daily attendance—with just one tardy—reflects the coordinated efforts of the ESED initiative. It takes many moving parts and the combined efforts of the school, principal, teachers, parents (and grandparents), working in collaboration with onsite social work interns like Kevin, and social workers like Chris Walsh, to help keep attendance on track. By developing relationships with chronically absent students and their families, like Cindy and Max’s, or Susan and Juliette’s, the ESED team develops an understanding of the barriers these families face getting to school every day, on time.

“It’s been eye-opening,” Kevin admits, when asked about his experience so far. “I’m learning how to connect with kids one-on-one, more on a micro level, rather than larger groups like PrimeTime.” (The Extended Day Program, PrimeTime provides elementary and middle school students a fun, engaging learning environment during the hours most parents/guardians are working.) “I’ve learned what to do when a child has an outburst, how to interact with and understand twins.”

Adds his supervisor, United Way’s Sou Yeon Pak, MSW, “I know how challenging it was for Kevin to have two rambunctious five-year-olds, but he handled it all so well; he was so steady in calming them down.” Mr. Walsh takes that praise a step farther: “Kevin’s consistent, kind, and caring support for Max has ben one of the key factors in this student’s improvement this year. He is one of a handful of positive male figures in his life right now.”

“Neither Cindy nor Max have a father figure in their life,” Kevin adds. “I believe that having someone like Mr. Walsh and me in their lives is beneficial to them as they can talk to us consistently.”

“Kevin has provided invaluable support to his school site,” Sou continues. “I’m consistently impressed by his emotional maturity, commitment, warmth, flexibility, and interpersonal skills. He really enjoys being a mentor to his students, and it’s clear how much they look up to him and trust him.”

And the feeling is mutual: “I am so grateful that I am able to intern at United Way San Diego and have my school site at Vista La Mesa,” Kevin says. “It’s been a great experience shadowing Mr. Walsh and learning from him. Thanks to Mr. Walsh, I have become more self-aware not only for myself but with the students and families that I work with.” Kevin’s goal is to graduate with his masters in 2022 from SDSU. “I want to help as many people as I can to pay it forward for what people have done in the past for me.”

By all accounts, the twins are doing great now. “They have become great listeners for Mr. Walsh, staff, and their teacher,” Kevin reports. “If either of them are asked to do something, they’ll do it. They aren’t as stressed or anxious as they once were and that has been a positive light for everyone.”

“The twins have come a long way this year,” Mr. Walsh concludes. “It’s noticeable in the daily reports that are sent home at the end of each day, as they proudly comment, ‘I had a blue day today!’ which is among the higher marks for their daily performance.”

UWSD’s Every Student, Every Day initiative offers a set of interventions to increase school attendance and close the achievement gap by facilitating partnerships between schools, universities, community providers, families, and students. United Way collaborates closely with elementary schools in the San Diego region to improve outcomes for local children and their families. Every Student, Every Day has consistently produced positive results for children and families, including increased attendance for participating students.

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