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7 Aug 2016
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At Friday’s community event celebrating the partnership between the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Walton County School District, from left, Foundation President/CEO Liza McFadden, best-selling author Jill Conner Browne, Janet Greeno with St. Joe Community Foundation, Superintendent Carlene Anderson and Myra Williams of Howard Group. (Photo Credit: Grand Boulevard)

The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, a national non-profit charity, announces that one of its nationally acclaimed programs is launching this fall in partnership with the Walton County School District—and the community helped celebrate today with a fundraiser that raised more than $40,000 for the three-year pilot by bringing to town best-selling author to Jill Conner Browne. Jill Conner Browne has legions of fans worldwide and is widely known as “The Sweet Potato Queen.” She has written nine books, several of which have been ranked # 1 on The New York Times® Best Seller List. Nearly 200 guests enjoyed some “Laughs for Literacy” with the Southern humorist who hails from Mississippi and has her own annual “Sweet Potato Queens Convention” and parade that benefits a local children’s hospital.

“We are committed to an educated community where literacy and reading thrive,” said Keith Howard President and CEO of Howard Group. Silver Sands Premium Outlets, A Howard Group and Simon Center, are pleased to be the presenting sponsor of the fundraiser.

One hundred percent of the event’s proceeds will benefit the Foundation and its new Walton County activities, thanks to support from CHELCO, Merrill Lynch—Krueger, Fosdyck & Associates, Sundog Books, The 30A Company, J. McLaughlin, Grand Boulevard at Sandestin and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.

All proceeds from the event directly support the “reading rally” and book giveaway, happening in September, for all third-graders at the Foundation’s Walton County pilot site school.

Conner Browne has created a global phenomenon—nearly 6,400 chapter groups in 37 countries—based on her philosophy and world view as recounted through her rollicking, raucous and riotously funny essays.

“Women and smart men understand that my sassy, down-to-earth humor is simply a vehicle by which the greater message is conveyed—one of self-reliance and empowerment, inspiring all to do what makes their hearts sing,” Conner Browne said.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush founded the organization in 1989 and is considered a pioneer for shining a light on “family literacy”—before there was a bona fide national movement and consistent proven research related to early childhood learning.

“We advocate for what Mrs. Bush always believed—that literacy is a civil right, and that reading should be a core value in every home in America,” said Liza McFadden, President and CEO of the Foundation, as she addressed the Walton County crowd.

“St. Joe Community Foundation provided a seed grant to establish the program for three years at a Walton County pilot site—while everyone involved in the fundraiser covered non-program expenses as we as a very special reading rally and book giveaway for an entire school’s third-graders this fall,” she added.

More than 40 percent of all third-graders in the Walton County School District are 3-6 months behind in reading on grade level. That is not uncommon across most Florida counties, and the challenge is a national one.

“The Walton County School District is grateful to have this additional intensive support for struggling third-grade readers,” said Superintendent Carlene Anderson. “There are so many reasons a student has a reading and comprehension deficit, and it is absolutely critical we help them at this age, building up their vocabulary and language skills. Reading literally impacts every other subject for them in school.”

Since launching in 2002, this particular Foundation program for struggling elementary student readers has served a total of more than 48,000 students nationwide. The Walton County launch will mark the 93rd program site in just the Sunshine State alone.

This particular schools-based family literacy program pairs teen mentors with 1st, 2nd or 3rd grade students who are, on average, six months or more behind in reading. According to national statistics, students who do not read proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Elementary school teachers identify and refer struggling readers to the program, and each student is paired with a teen who have been intensively trained. The students meet regularly for one-on-one mentoring sessions, during which they practice reading from a series of educational, entertaining books and resources to improve reading skills and promote an interest in science. A teacher is paid to collect the data and serve as the adviser.

Teen Trendsetters programs are regularly evaluated by third-party, independent researchers, and achieve impressive results. Mentees enrolled in the program at an average of eight months below grade level in reading. By the end of the program year, 40 percent were reading at or above grade level.

The program also helps the mentees build a home library, providing them with 17 books that they take home. Parents of mentees sign an agreement to reinforce learning by listening to their child read at home.

The teen mentors benefit as well, gaining leadership skills and achieving increased graduation rates. Teens participating in the program boast a 97 percent graduation rate, with 86 percent going to college and 75 percent earning a scholarship. These numbers are particularly notable when compared to the national overall graduation rate (81 percent).

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