Philanthropic group wants to improve early learning in Dorchester

By P. Ryan Anthony, Special to Dorchester Banner
Posted 11/9/22

After a successful career in technology and software, many people would choose to sit back and relax. But not John Wyatt. When he sold his sixth company in 2016, he discussed with his spouse, Jan, …

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Philanthropic group wants to improve early learning in Dorchester

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After a successful career in technology and software, many people would choose to sit back and relax. But not John Wyatt. When he sold his sixth company in 2016, he discussed with his spouse, Jan, what to do next.

“Our children had just graduated from college or were well on their way, so we knew they would be fine,” he explained. “And [Jan] said, ‘Well, what about all the kids who haven’t had the advantages?’”

This was an idea Wyatt could get behind. He had benefited from the high-quality education that was standard in his native Australia, so he was unprepared for the shock of discovering the inequities inherent in the U.S. school system when he came here in 1978.

“We said, ‘What if we could level the playing field for the kids who don’t have those advantages?’” Wyatt continued. “And we built the foundation specifically to do that, essentially to lift the kids up who were struggling and trying to make it through the school system.”

Founded in July 2018, the John & Janice Wyatt (J2W) Foundation provides significant grants and collaborates with needy communities to develop solutions that are evidence based. Deciding to focus on places where there could be useful engagement, the Wyatts chose to invest in Fairfax, Virginia, where they live most of the time; Winchester, Virginia, where foundation director Matthew Peterson lives; and Dorchester County, where the Wyatts had bought a second home in 2015.

“When we looked at what challenges Dorchester had, what we came up with was everything,” John Wyatt said. “My conclusion was that, if we’re going to do something really lasting, it has to start with the kids, because that’s the future.”

So, they zeroed in on the educational needs of younger children. And they knew they wanted a collaborator who could get the community and the school system to work together. Enter Jymil Thompson.

With master’s degrees from Trinity and Howard universities, Thompson had begun his career teaching special education. After serving as assistant principal at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs, he came out here in 2017 to become principal of Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge. J2W hired him to be its director of programs, and he has proven himself to be a hard worker with the commitment to seeing the foundation’s vision through.

“Whatever I see that I believe in, I’m going to be committed to getting it done by any way that I can,” Thompson said.

Once the team was in place, they developed a strategy around the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort by various entities nationwide that was launched in 2010 to ensure more children from low-income families experience educational success.

“Our conclusion was, if we focused just on getting the kids reading on grade level by third grade, and then make sure they didn’t fall off the wagon by the time they got through middle school, we’ll have lifted them up and moved them well on their way,” explained Wyatt. “If they can read competently in third grade, then they can teach themselves somewhat and not be dependent on the teacher telling them everything.”

With that decided, Thompson organized a group of nonprofits interested in sponsoring the campaign and willing to contribute time and effort deciding which programs could be tested. J2W kicked off its version of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in Dorchester County on Oct. 21, 2021. The first program they looked seriously at implementing was PreK-3, which posits that a child who has two years of quality pre-kindergarten learning will be ready for kindergarten.

So, they collaborated with Dorchester County Public Schools on a PK-3 pilot program that will show its results next year. In the meantime, Hurlock Elementary School has added its own PK-3 pilot and is considering two more for the near future. According to Wyatt, the program got such quick adaptation by the usually slow school system because they saw the difference in the children.

“We were really excited about it,” he said.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has three metrics for success: third-grade proficiency, kindergarten readiness and decrease in chronic absenteeism.

“I don’t think parents are really aware of how absenteeism impacts academic performance,” Thompson said. “When I was the principal at Mace’s Lane, I had students who were absent and they were taken to truancy court. Truancy court is not going to make parents bring their kids to school, because it’s a punitive measure.”

Instead, J2W is working with local businesses to offer incentives to schools with a high percentage of attendance. They’ve already seen this work in Winchester, where the promise of ice cream made a huge difference.

They also know that another way of combating absenteeism is to offer parents helpful information. They just introduced a parent-engagement tool called Ready for K, which currently sends text messages to over 1,400 area families. The thrice-weekly texts include ideas for helping kids with academics and dealing with emotional issues. J2W plans to expand Ready for K into private day cares and early learning centers.

But none of this will be effective without the trust of the community. Thompson believes that requires breaking down barriers one at a time.

“I definitely think it’s got to happen at the micro level, with individual people or small groups,” he said.

Wyatt added, “If you look at the dynamics in any PTA, it’s personal. It’s the relationships between the parents and the teachers.”

Now, J2W just needs to get the word out to everyone. Though they have encouraged their collaborators and sponsors to help, public relations have proven to be a challenge. But Wyatt and Thompson know the school system, appreciative but passive so far, must advocate for the program to the community.

“I remember my mother or my elders would say that education used to be a village mentality,” Thompson said. “Like, everyone in the community had responsibility for education. That’s what we’re trying to get back to.”

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