The following column by Gulf Coast President/CEO Mark Pritchett originally appeared in the February 16 edition of SRQ Daily:
Last month, I touched on the concept of “inclusive excellence” championed by many higher education institutions and leaders. Put simply, it involves integrating efforts that promote diversity and inclusion with the highest standards for excellence and achievement in service of promoting success for all throughout a community or organization. Among its most compelling advocates is Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who will visit our region March 8.
Hrabowski is widely hailed for transforming a largely commuter school into a research powerhouse across all disciplines and, especially, for guiding minority students to advanced degrees and careers in science and engineering. Speaking here on the Gulf Coast, he will discuss the potent combination of access, opportunity, and expectations that can lead to success in education and in life.
Listening to some of his past talks and reading his work in anticipation of that visit, I’ve become more attuned to the creative ways that local nonprofits make excellence inclusive in our community every day. In fact, the day before I wrote my last column, I witnessed two such examples within a few hours.
It started at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, with the launch of a new class of Beyond School Walls. This workplace-based mentoring program of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast matches at-risk high-school students with adult mentors at an area business. The “Littles” meet the “Bigs” regularly at their place of employment, so the students can see what it means to work for a successful business. Not only do they gain an adult coach, confidante, and friend at a critical time in their lives, but they also learn by experience about diverse career options and the education and skills needed to achieve them.
The new class paired seven Booker High students with Ritz-Carlton staff, including general manager Damien O’Riordan. The students—some of whom said they had never stayed at a hotel before—are now experiencing the world-famous “Ritz-Carlton way” from the inside. The Ritz’s Gold Standards of service, values, and employee empowerment have been the focus of countless business articles, case studies, and high-end leadership seminars. Thanks to the generosity and belief of Damien and his team, these teenagers get to learn about it firsthand. Not through a lecture or presentation, but through a real relationship—one I hope lasts much longer than the duration of the program for each of these matches.
As the newly matched Bigs and Littles headed off to different areas of the hotel to spend their first day together, I headed down to Venice for a lunch with several dozen Reading Recovery teachers from Sarasota County Schools. These highly trained literacy specialists work one-on-one with first-graders who struggle the most with reading and writing. The proven program had a nearly 85 percent success rate last year in catapulting students—some of whom started school unable to read at all—to grade-level proficiency within 20 weeks of lessons.
A highlight of the lunch, for me as well as for donors on hand like Keith and Linda Monda, who helped make Reading Recovery possible here, was the stories shared by the teachers at each of our tables. They talked eloquently about their own experiences, school-level results, and individual children whose lives they’ve seen transformed.
A theme I kept hearing was the joy and enthusiasm that students brought to their lessons every day, and the excitement and confidence they brought back to their classrooms. There is no stigma attached to leaving class each day to work with their Reading Recovery teacher. Rather, that’s the highlight of their day—and their classmates wish they could go too! For a student who doesn’t see reading modeled at home or can’t get help with homework for any number of reasons, the attention, encouragement, and expectations of their dedicated literacy teachers opens up a new world and future for them. The students learn that they can read because they learn to read. And they soon recognize that their ability to read means they can learn anything.
One youngster I heard about was Dillon. He entered first grade at Fruitville Elementary as a non-reader, but within 20 weeks he reached the level of his average-age peers thanks to Reading Recovery. The first time he voluntarily read from the white board at the front of the room, a classmate cheerfully affirmed, “Dillon, you can read now!” And Dillon hasn’t stopped.
I also learned about a committed group of volunteers who supplement the work of Gocio Elementary’s two Reading Recovery teachers. These community members come in weekly to assist current Reading Recovery students and work with second-graders who graduated from the program last year. For kids who don’t have anyone at home to listen as they read and correct them when they stumble, these volunteers fill a critical gap while also demonstrably wrapping our community’s arms around its next generation.
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski’s success at making his university a model for inclusive excellence has relied on strategies like eliminating historical barriers to access, fostering a mutually supportive community, exemplifying grit, and aspiring to the highest standards. Innovative programs in our community that encourage these same practices show our youth that anything is possible with hard work and then give them the opportunity to achieve it.
Reservations for our March 8 Better Together luncheon can be made here.