Reading Is Fundamental Takes Its Mission Into the 21st Century

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Established in 1966, Washington, D.C.-based Reading Is Fundamental is the nation’s oldest and largest children’s literacy organization. In May, it capped its 35th anniversary with a "National Reading Celebration," which featured special events at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington during RIF’s annual Reading Is Fun Week, which ran from May 5-12.

At the event’s awards ceremony, RIF honored the winners of the 2002 RIF Community Reading Challenge, sponsored by the MetLife Foundation. This year’s winners were the Mid-Cumberland Head Start/Early Head Start of Ashland City, Tennessee (small site champion), and Hancock Elementary School in St. Louis (large site champion).

In a recent interview with BTW, Carol H. Rasco, president and CEO of RIF, said that the organization had worked to enlist the support of families and community members to help achieve "a more literate America." In March, RIF programs nationwide created two weeks of reading activities that combined personal reading goals for participating children with integrated activities at home with family. More than 600 RIF sites, serving over 240,000 children pledged to participate in the Community Reading Challenge. The winning small site and large site programs were chosen from among these participants.

For Rasco, who became the RIF head last November, the focus on early readers and outreach have been consistent themes in her professional career. A former teacher, she was a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley and directed the America Reads Challenge in the Clinton Administration. Launched in 1997, America Reads was a Clinton-backed initiative to ensure that all children could read well and independently by third grade. In 1998, ABA’s Prescription for Reading worked with the America Reads Challenge. That year, in conjunction with Scholastic Inc.; author Rosemary Wells; the Association of Booksellers for Children; and the Ingram Book Company, the program distributed more than 200,000 free copies of Well’s Read to Your Bunny to young readers. For more information on this year’s Presciption for Reading, click here.

Rasco recently spoke with BTW about RIF and its mission.

BTW: What do you see as the most significant challenges for RIF in the 21st century, and how are they helping shape your goals as President?

Rasco: The changing demographics within our country, particularly as they relate to children and their parents who speak English as a second language, are a key challenge for those of us in the literacy field. Also, with the emphasis on "research-based" approaches to education, we find providers in the field very confused over what "program" to use. In addition, the idea of helping children as individuals with differing needs, different ways of learning is lost. And, finally, the issue of creating sustainability in community-based programs is an ongoing issue within the non-profit world.

BTW: RIF is the oldest nonprofit children’s literacy organization. Are there any major ways in which it is changing its strategic vision?

Rasco: In recent years, RIF has begun to add a focus on the preschool years due to the body of research that tells us about the critical importance of those early years. This also includes working with parents and childcare providers. Programs in local communities in which RIF is working are no longer always in a school setting, as was the case in early years. RIF programming is now found in childcare centers, after-school programs, community centers, hospitals and clinics, detention centers, arts centers, museums, and the list continues.

BTW: In many ways, becoming the President of Reading Is Fundamental seems a natural progression from your experience in government and the private sector. How do you think the key insights and experiences you gained there are coming into play at RIF?

Rasco: During my experience as a classroom teacher and a school counselor and as a policy maker in government, I have learned the necessity of collaboration among various levels of government and private sector organizations, (local, regional, state, and federal), as well as collaboration within communities in order to affect positive change. RIF is designed to work within these various collaborations, and we will be working to make the partnerships stronger.

In working with children on almost any area of instruction, I know the key elements are working with the child as the individual she or he is, as well as having caring adults involved in the child’s life; I will work to see that we keep these key factors in mind as we design programming and train parents and volunteers.