Grantee Profile: Starting Strong


Portland Public Schools students in a Starting Strong program.

Since 2013, the John T. Gorman Foundation has invested in Starting Strong, an initiative that brings together more than 30 partners from the Portland area to focus on the common goal of ensuring that all children in the district can read proficiently by the end of third grade. The Foundation is a committed partner in the effort. In fact, Starting Strong’s strategies reflect some of the same guiding principles that drive the Foundation work’s with young children around the state.

As the early education component of ConnectED – an effort designed to help children in the area better navigate the journey from cradle to college and career– Starting Strong, which is housed at the United Way of Greater Portland, has energized parents, teachers and others who care about children in the Portland area.

“We are fortunate to have a community that’s both very committed to kids, and also excited about trying new approaches to better serve them in the future,” says Katie Camplin, the Project Director of Starting Strong. The initiative is particularly concerned with closing the notable gap in academic achievement that exists between children from lower-income families in Portland and their more economically advantaged peers.

Starting Strong builds upon the best practices of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a national collaboration between funders, nonprofits and communities that aims to help more children from disadvantaged families succeed in school. As one of more than 285 Campaign sites nationally and the first such site in Maine, Starting Strong focuses on three strategies to help children achieve reading proficiency: school readiness, summer learning and consistent school attendance. “Researchers have found that those are three important factors that impact literacy success for young kids,” says Carter Friend, Senior Program Associate at the John T. Gorman Foundation.

How does the initiative plan to help nearly 6,000 young children in Portland read proficiently by the end of third grade? By enlisting the whole community in its work. Starting Strong relies on inclusive programming like the Walking School Bus, a pilot program at the Ocean Avenue Community School to foster a culture of attendance in the neighborhood. Volunteer parents, teachers and other supportive residents in the area walk with children to school, making sure that they have a safe and reliable network to cut down on absenteeism. The project is part of the district’s involvement in Count ME In, a comprehensive, data-driven approach to increasing student attendance, which also receives support from the Foundation.

Starting Strong is leveraging the power of the community in other efforts, too. For instance, the Reading Partners program, which began at Ocean Avenue Elementary School and is slated to expand to other schools this fall, pairs highly trained volunteers with first-graders who need some extra reading help. That program’s mid-point assessment showed that virtually all the students in the program achieved higher reading levels.

The initiative is also working with families and community-based organizations in the area around the Reiche Elementary School, which serves one of the most diverse populations in the city. The hope is to set common goals and pilot school readiness strategies to help ensure that the youngest residents of the neighborhood enter kindergarten ready to learn. These projects, and the other innovative tactics employed by the initiative, will go a long way towards transforming Portland into a city of early readers.