The Idea for First Pages

Written by: Kelly Partner, Founder & President
Published on: June 19th, 2014

The inspiration behind First Pages is deeply rooted in my passions for education, literacy, fundraising, and non-profit management and my experiences in each.

Becoming a teacher.
From an extremely early age I loved to read and learn, which naturally lead me to embrace school with open arms as a kid.  I loved school so much that I decided (in elementary school) that I was going to become a teacher one day.  In college I majored in English literature and language, and immediately upon graduation I enrolled in a Master’s of Teaching program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  In addition to traditional classwork to earn my master’s degree and teaching license, I taught sections of 10th and 12th grade English.  I loved planning creative lessons to keep my students engaged.  I liked coming up with projects that involved collaboration, creativity, and student choice.  And even though I came home exhausted every day and my weekends were filled with nothing but grading essays, reading, and planning for the week ahead, I genuinely enjoyed teaching.

My first (and only) teaching job.
I graduated with my Master’s in Teaching in mid-summer 2011 and just before the new school year started, I was hired as an 8th grade Language Arts teacher at a local charter school.  My incoming 8th graders had all taken a reading test at the end of their 7th grade year.  Most of them were reading at a 5th grade level, with just a handful reading at or above the actual 8th grade level.  Unfortunately my request to begin the school year by teaching novels that written at a 6th grade reading level was denied.  So I taught the 8th grade novels as assigned, and, as predicted, most of my students were frustrated and discouraged with the material and made no measurable progress in their reading skills.  And because of strict rules and regulations within the school (students ate lunch with teachers every day, they stayed with their home room class all day long, they weren’t allowed to freely walk and talk during class changes) my kids acted out in class constantly.  As a new and very young (22) teacher, I just didn’t know how to make it work.  I cried every day on my way home from work.  I cried for myself and I cried for the kids who I wasn’t helping.  And it was that second thought that ultimately lead me to my decision to quit.  Not only was I miserable, but I wasn’t doing these kids any good, and me “sticking it out” for the whole year wasn’t going to help them one bit.  So I quit mid-year, ashamed, confused, guilt-ridden, and exhausted.

A career jump to fundraising.
My dream had been to be a teacher since I was a kid, and now I had to pick a different career path and try again.  I wanted my next career attempt to be more successful, so I took some time to think about what it was I liked about education (helping others, planning lessons, organizing, communicating, literature) and other previous experiences that I had enjoyed (being a Resident Assistant, managing volunteers for an arts festival, participating in Relay for Life as a team captain and fundraising chair, being a counselor and director at a kids summer camp).  The aim of each of these endeavors was ultimately to help people.  And they all required high-level organizational and planning skills, two characteristics I definitely possessed and enjoyed utilizing.  And I found my experiences with fundraising, though on a very small scale, exciting and challenging.  I talked to a former classmate of mine from the Master’s program who, upon graduation didn’t even go into teaching but chose instead to go into development work (ie: fundraising and stewardship) at Duke University.  She was one of the best student teachers I knew in the program, so if she could be happy in development instead of teaching, I thought there must be something to it.  In February 2012 I began my new career as the Events Coordinator for the development office of the North Carolina Children’s Hospital at UNC.

Toying with education again.
In early December 2012, while still working full time for the North Carolina Children’s Hospital, I began tutoring on the side.  My main student was a high school senior who had just received disappointing scores on her SAT test and wanted to do improve before taking them again.  Shortly after we began working together, I discovered that reading simply did not come easily to her.  She had to really concentrate on the basic understanding of a reading passage, and when it came time for higher-level reading comprehension – she was mentally spent.  She didn’t have the coping mechanisms to move beyond her frustration or the analytical skills to answer the questions posed to her.  So to start, I simply helped her become a better reader, period.  I used short passages and asked her to answer basic who, what, where, and when questions until it became second nature (read: easy!).  We learned new vocabulary words, and I taught her decoding skills and strategies for approaching words and phrases she didn’t understand.  Once reading itself became easier, she was able to concentrate on the analysis and comprehension with less frustration and more understanding.  Six months later, she retook her SATs and improved her scores due in large part to the fact that we worked on making reading easier.  This extremely enjoyable ‘teaching’ experience got me actively thinking about education again.

Learning more about literacy.
I thought about how I could help kids like my tutoring student, my old 8th graders, and my student-teaching 10th and 12th graders.  And I thought about how I could help my fellow program cohorts who were still teaching.  How could I make their jobs easier by supporting their students in their reading?  I read more about reading education and learned that from kindergarten until third grade, kids learn to read.  But starting in third grade and beyond, kids read in order to learn other subjects.  So if children weren’t proficient readers by third grade, they would only continue to struggle as less and less emphasis was given to reading skills.  Study after study showed that 3rd grade reading test scores were pretty accurate predictors of high school success.  And those same studies also showed that K-3 reading success really stemmed from pre-literacy skills attained prior to even entering school.  Parents with the time, knowledge, and resources to do so are teaching their children to read before entering school, setting them miles ahead of those who aren’t.  When they all enter kindergarten, each of the students make significant gains in their reading.  Inevitably the student who entered school with basic proficiency to begin with will have improved by the end of the year, and the student who was less proficient at the start will make similar improvements, but won’t ever “catch up” to their classmate.  And so these classes of students will go through the years with a forever widening achievement gap, due in large part to the skills they learned (or didn’t learn) before they ever set foot in a classroom.  And what skills are learned prior to kindergarten are a reflection of what parents are able to provide for their children in terms of resources and time.  For those children who are born into families who do not have the extra income, time, or knowledge to support an age-appropriate home library, the consequences are obviously serious.  Reports show that the simple act of having books in the house as a toddler greatly increases the chances for success in kindergarten, which greatly increases the chance for reading success through third grade, and… well you know the rest!  Something as simple as books can, in part, start to make a difference in the achievement gaps in our schools today.  What an easy concept.

The idea for First Pages.
There are a number of great nonprofit organizations out there that provide free books to young children in early grades to help promote a love of reading, prevent the summer ‘slide’ of proficiency, and make reading a regular part of a child’s life.  I think those organizations are wonderful and are essential to continued growth and success for our kids, but as I kept researching, I found myself wondering “how many organizations are out there working to get books into the hands of toddlers that need them?”  The answer is: not many.  We know that catching kids when they are 2, 3, and 4 years old makes the biggest impact on their future success.  But it is hard to FIND kids who aren’t in schools yet – they aren’t in one place.  Challenge accepted.  I began to craft my plan of distributing books to at-risk toddlers via their parents who might be receiving services from other organizations that provide housing assistance, emergency food, clothing, childcare support, etc.  I scribbled notes for big plans to eventually develop intensive programs for parents and their toddlers that would include pre-reading assessments, personalized goals and strategies, and incentives to meet those goals.  I had finally found how I could make a difference in my community – using my fundraising skills that I was still developing at UNC Children’s, my teaching background, and my passion for literacy.  And thus, the idea for First Pages was born**

**On paper.  It took quite some time for it to move from an idea in a notebook to an actual entity.  To read more about the first concrete steps to develop First Pages, read our new post, The TEDx talk that inspired the founding of First Pages.

Update: After three years as the Events Coordinator at North Carolina Children’s Hospital, I took on a new role as Assistant Director of Special Programs at Duke Children’s Hospital & Health Center in February 2015.  Everything that I learned from working at UNC and everything I continue to learn now working for Duke helps me to make better strategic decisions for First Pages!