As an extension of our commitment to improve education and increase the opportunity for marginalized students to change the trajectory of their lives, starting in 2020 we began underwriting a program at The University of Pennsylvania to foster discussions among differing political views. Our program is called the Red and Blue Exchange (RBX). It’s a foundational piece of Penn’s Stavros Niarchos Paideia Program which strives to integrate wellness, service and citizenship through dialogue. The RBX is a nod to the beloved colors of Penn, and to the colors embedded in our nation’s politics. RBX pursues transformative learning, enlightened leadership and the discovery of common ground. It shines a light on the world through different lenses, to mutually empower a path to remedy polarization. When John and Mary Anne Gamba described their interest in strengthening higher education by productively engaging opposing views, they said, “We hope students will delve into some of the most challenging topics currently facing society, learn to navigate the many different perspectives that exist around those topics, and find effective solutions to influence change – both in their time at Penn, and later in their careers.” Our Red and Blue Exchange program was featured in an article in the March 31, 2022 Washington Post Sunday Magazine.
As the Entrepreneur In Residence at U Penn’s Graduate School of Education, John Gamba Jr. wrote an article about building a strong classroom foundation focused on a child’s well-being, before targeting academic accomplishments. He suggests many “SEL” programs fall short of what students need to feel grounded, connected and supported. He offers some reasons why, such as not prioritizing what is exciting from a student’s point of view. He also emphasizes analyzing SEL content along evidence-based standards – referring to the strength of examples such as CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), the ASCA (American School Counselors Association) and PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). He also empathizes with teachers, cautioning against a learning curve that’s too steep or an implementation timeframe that’s too intense. He encourages, “where SEL is concerned, engagement, efficacy and ease-of-use must go together. Just because it’s easy to use doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Just because it aligns to standards, doesn’t make it engaging.”
In recent months we’ve listened to American Public Media’s Sold A Story podcast about how children learn to read. We’re struck by its ability to translate a complex topic into compelling, accessible content. We’re also captivated by how accurately it represents the depth and breadth of our own family’s paths learning how to read, and our perspectives working with children. We were riveted as we lived through the many voices woven into the podcast: parents, students, teachers, school leaders and advocates, all sharing their powerful experiences.
We’re motivated to alleviate the burden educators experience in the trenches. We’re alarmed by the interdependence of habit, expense and time. While decoding is an element to prioritize (and the cueing system to curtail), we realize it will thwart progress if we ignore the many other influences in play for learning how to be good readers. Children need more resources for building background knowledge, expanding vocabulary, developing connection with a “love of reading” environment and access to high quality content across subjects including history, science, health, and the arts. We realize an emphasis on writing skills can’t be lost, and early screening for dyslexia and reading readiness are key. We additionally find confidence in American Public Media Emily Hanford’s suggestion of conducting a “pre-mortem” process to alleviate the unintended consequences of massive policy change. Anticipating the many levers that could lead to failure while trying to improve the landscape in reading education seems more prudent than a broad-brush approach to adopting curriculum. We’re encouraged by the progress we’ve seen in recent years. As ExcelInEd’s Dr. Kymyona Burk stated, “there is a higher level of accountability placed on all of us who now know better to do better.”
As we develop our learning curve on the topic of “how to learn to read well,” we thought we’d share the following resources as we build our frame of reference:
CNN segment in April 2023 covering national attention on effective reading instruction.
Two audio documentaries produced by American Public Media (requiring less time than Sold A Story):
Links to Other Helpful Information:
ExcelInEd – advances policy decisions within and outside the traditional system to increase learning, eliminate inequities and ready graduates for college and career.
ExcellInEd’s Comprehensive Literacy Policy – state-by-state analysis of fundamental principles.
National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) – published a 2023 report and a review of preservice preparation programs teaching early reading. It analyzes the five components of effective reading instruction that ensures teachers enter the classroom ready to teach children how to read.
Go Beyond Grades: Resource for parents to understand the difference between report card grades and proficiency in math and reading.
Season 1 of the Knowledge Matters Podcast, Reading Comprehension Revisited. Covers topics such as why students from low-income backgrounds often score lower on reading tests. Why improvements in early grades fade out over time. And why substantial investments in ed reform haven’t delivered larger results. For a quicker listen, go directly to Episode 5, Episode 2 and Episode 6.
Motivated to support Penn’s “Integration of Knowledge” strategic priority, in 2015 John and Mary Anne Gamba established an endowed scholarship fund for students in the Nursing and Healthcare Management Dual Degree Program. Graduates earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Bachelor of Science in Economics from Wharton. Incorporating a unique multi-disciplinary approach within a highly specialized curriculum, students gain expertise in innovative patient care and acquire cutting-edge strategies to address issues across the healthcare field. The program provides practical, high-impact, multi-disciplinary experiences with access to a broad array of career paths – from advanced degrees in research and clinical care, to more business-focused aspects of healthcare.
Excerpt from the University of Pennsylvania magazine “Penn Impact 2020 The Power of Philanthropy”:
The Mary Anne Spolar Gamba and John F. Gamba Nursing-Wharton Program Endowed Scholarship Fund is the most recent of three scholarships established by the couple and pays tribute to the many aspects of their shared Penn History. Mary Anne, HUP’65, G’84, received her diploma from the Hospital of Pennsylvania’s nursing program and later achieved a graduate degree in sociology, while John’s, W’61, Wharton education was made possible through a full scholarship. Their Penn pride grew even more with the graduation of their son John Jr., C’92. “We feel very strongly about our obligation to give back to the university that has meant so much to our family,” share the Gambas.
In May 2015, Mary Anne and John celebrated Mary Anne’s 50th HUP reunion, where the graduates to the discontinued HUP program were included with alumni from the School of Nursing under the banner of “Penn Nurses” Since becoming Dean of Nursing in 2014, Antonia Villaruel has continued previous Dean Alef Meleis’ efforts to recognize the HUP program as the beginning of the evolution of nursing education at Penn. They cite this inclusion as a strong motivation to the latest expression of their philanthropy. The couple was further inspired by Dean Villaruel’s prioritizing of the intensive Nursing and Health Care Management Program, which combines clinical courses from the School of Nursing with business and management courses from Wharton. “This seemed to be a natural opportunity for us – as alumni of Nursing and Wharton – to support the new Dean,” they say.
Increasing access to education has long been an important goal for the Gambas. In addition to their own scholarships, they are both actively involved with the Penn Alumni Club of Southwest Florida, which created a scholarship to support a student from the region. They found that fundraising for a good cause formed a powerful bond among the group and can foster lifelong relationships with the University. “Asking Penn alums to come together to support a meaningful Penn priority while meeting the needs of a local student is one key to keeping alumni connected and excited about Penn.”
We first learned about Two Rivers Public Charter School in 2015 when we supported Washington DC’s CityBridge BreakThrough Schools. From the beginning we’ve been impressed by Two Rivers PCS as an Expeditionary Learning school as it embodies EL Education’s mission “to create classrooms where teachers can fulfill their highest aspirations, and students achieve more than they think possible, becoming active contributors to building a better world.” We can attest to Two Rivers PCS fulfilling EL Education’s powerful vision statement: “When students and teachers are engaged in work that is challenging, adventurous, and meaningful, learning and achievement flourish.” As a BreakThrough School, Two Rivers has been developing a set of innovative student assessment tools – next generation assessments that measure students’ cognitive skills beyond those captured by traditional standardized tests, including critical thinking and problem solving, complex communication and writing, deep content mastery and character. The goal ultimately is for Two Rivers PCS to share the assessments broadly to any schools wishing to investigate new measures for student success. We respect Two Rivers’ vigilant attention to using ongoing assessments as a tool within its entire school, consistently creating feedback loops for teachers to gauge learning as a part of a broad context measuring student progress.
Read more about Two Rivers’ approach to promote critical thinking at Education Week . We recommend watching the three-minute video embedded in the article.
Since 2014 we have supported Dunbar High School, which draws a high number of minority and low-income students in Ft. Myers, FL. After initiating its Academy for Technology Excellence in 2005, Dunbar HS received the attention of Microsoft when its students consistently earned rigorous Information Technology credentialing. Microsoft decided to partner with Dunbar HS, awarding the school the distinction of becoming its first Microsoft Certified High School in the US and in the world. Harnessing the momentum and determined to provide students with more opportunity, Dunbar has since added Academies for Digital, Game Design, Programming and Engineering Excellence. It additionally has collaborated to develop a local business advisory board, including IT businesses and local colleges to promote the Academies’ growth, sustainability, awareness and an extensive group of businesses interested in providing Dunbar students with internship and employment opportunities. We’ve been pleased to support college and career readiness by funding tools tied to tech credentialing. We believe in Dunbar’s capacity to draw more students because of the Academies and provide the experience and resources needed for high schoolers to go to and through college, or to acquire valuable qualifications in a vocation of their calling.
Read more about Dunbar High School as it was featured on the Alliance for Excellent Education.
After violence and strain bombarded the news in the summer of 2016, Two Rivers Public Charter School found possibility by turning to its unique culture. The school drew from its problem-solving curriculum to design a program engaging its parents and staff. The goal was both simple and profound. They wanted to take a first step in their immediate frame of reference (simple) to uncover the belief systems that form invisible divides between people (profound). At its core was the school’s Mission Statement which we’ve seen repeated at virtually every gathering we’ve attended at Two Rivers: “to nurture a diverse group of students to become lifelong, active participants in their own education, develop a sense of self and community, and become responsible and compassionate members of society.“ Over the past two years Two Rivers has refined the program, called “Share Your DC”. We have been proud to help fund this expeditionary learning series, which has strengthened the Two Rivers community and beyond. We’ve witnessed the great impact of the course, and the broad ripple effect in DC since it launched. Read more at Next Generation Learning.
Our family’s volunteer work at Stanton ES began more than a decade ago through the effort of Linda Kuzmack and the Girl Scouts at Chesterbrook Elementary School in McLean, VA.
In July of 2016, our family discussed how we could help Stanton students more directly by providing books. After meeting with Stanton administrators we purchased early-reader take home books for PreK – 2nd graders, which otherwise had not been budgeted for the school.
Over the past four summers we’ve collected gently used children’s books for PreK – 5th grade. We delivered empty reusable bags to hundreds of doors in our Virginia neighborhood, asking for donations. We returned weeks later to pick up bags filled with chapter books, atlases, picture books, dictionaries, series books and graphic novels. Thanks to the generosity of our neighborhood, at each summer’s end we receive many thousands of books.
We bring the books to Linda Kuzmack who stores them according to reading level and content. Throughout the school year we accompany her on several of the many deliveries she makes with carloads of books for Stanton students, tailored specifically for each child, or for classrooms, culminating with an end of year free Book Fair to ensure children have reading material all summer. We also initiated a summer reading program in 2019 and attended two Back to School events to promote literacy. To date we’ve collected more than 10,000 books for Stanton’s children.