More than three years since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, we’re still grappling with the impact it’s had on our way of living, working, and learning. The loss of time can feel especially salient for students who had important years of instruction and social interaction upended by lockdowns, school closures, and the transition into and out of remote learning. The results of these disruptions are already reflected in the math and reading scores of elementary-aged students.
We worked with Reading Partners—a national nonprofit that has spent the last 20 years working in communities to provide students with individualized reading support—to deliver tailored tutoring to students across the US that will help them continue to succeed and achieve throughout their lives. Together, we aimed to answer the question of how to leverage new partnerships and models to engage a greater audience of students, schools, and communities nationwide. Finding the answer would present both a challenge and an opportunity.
Reading Partner’s delivery model is anchored around high-touch, in-person tutoring that provides students with frequent, evidence-based, one-on-one support proven to build their confidence and capability. It’s highly effective to sit alongside students and develop trusting relationships with them, their teachers, and the wider community. But this is also a challenging model to scale because it relies on many variables, including what resources are available in the community, where volunteers are located, and what type of support the kids and schools need.
As we explored what it might take to scale for reach, we started to ask more questions. What is scaling in service of? Is it simply to reach more students? How might we answer this question differently if we instead focused on the impact Reading Partners is trying to have on the world—what they believe their “endgame” to be? This reframe propelled us to think differently about the components that made up their current model—that of proprietary, high-touch, individualized, one-on-one tutoring—and interrogate how the components might differ depending on the endgames.
The team at Reading Partners felt strongly that their ultimate endgame was a world where all children in the US have the reading skills necessary to reach their full potential. With this objective in mind, we shifted from taking a more quantitative approach that increases how many students are being reached to one that increases the depth and breadth of the organization’s impact. Then, we got to work designing strategies that would get us there.
With the insights and inputs from regional heads across the country, officials in the schools where Reading Partners runs programming, and the tutors who work directly with students, our design team developed two concepts for the organization to consider. Each of these concepts illustrated a strategic approach that would determine their business model going forward.
The first concept, which we named Charlotte’s Web after the children’s book by E.B. White, illustrates an approach where Reading Partners provides organizational partners the initial seedlings to reproduce their reading programs and helps nurture their growth. This approach was rooted in education equity, and focused on empowering and equipping the community around the child—including their teachers and families—with the training and resources to support students’ learning journeys. As a result, students gradually feel prepared and empowered to learn anywhere with ease through personalized, self-service tools.
The second concept, named The Giving Tree after the book by Shel Silverstein, illustrates an approach where the organization builds on the connections students already have, enabling communities to service themselves using an open source curriculum. This approach was taking the organization’s proprietary curriculum and inviting schools and community organizations who use the curriculum to build on it. If Charlotte’s Web is more about empowering people to deliver curriculum in new ways, The Giving Tree is about inviting communities to evolve and adapt the curriculum to suit a student’s needs, interests, and unique context.
Ultimately, the team at Reading Partners landed on a strategy that incorporated aspects of both approaches. They recognized that if their endgame is somewhere at the intersection of replication and mission achievement, then it’s important to distinguish which parts of the business model are proprietary and which can be accessible to others so that more people can be reached. As a result, we started thinking about in-school programs, partnerships, and innovation as distinctly different things with different offers. In schools, there would be even more customized program delivery. With partnerships and the transformative bets, they would hand over more control and create the scaffolding and tools for others to deliver reading support to eligible students.
Once we landed on a strategy, and to close out our collaboration in a way that honored the new way forward, we authored and illustrated a children’s book that captured Reading Partners’ new strategy. The story, If You Give a Kid a Community, tells the story of what’s possible when the people in a child’s life work together to help them learn, grow, and find their confidence.
“If you give a kid a community, anything is possible.”