Terms such as “leverage” and “venture capital” are generally reserved for
financial stories and are associated with business ventures in which investor
funds are used to generate additional income.
But at the Florida Institute of Education at UNF, these terms are frequently
used to describe the success of an early learning and literacy program funded a
decade ago by one of Jacksonville’s most prominent couples.
Tom and Betty Petway generously gave a $1.65 million gift to UNF to fund the
Jacksonville Early Literacy and Learning Initiative. At that time, they
requested no publicity, but they have since relented in order to tell the story
of how one gift can make a huge difference not only in Jacksonville but also
across the state.
Dr. Cheryl Fountain, executive director of the Florida Institute of
Education (FIE), says the gift has been leveraged over the past 10 years to
generate more than $16 million in grants for early literacy learning. “These
investments may not have been made without the Petway venture capital. Their
gift contributed to the changing landscape of early literacy education and
school readiness in Jacksonville and across the state,” she says.
The changes have been truly impressive by any standard. The beginning
premise was deceptive in its simplicity. Providing a high-quality literacy
curriculum in preschool childcare centers can provide the basic building block
to all education - the ability to read. “When children can read, they can
overcome many other problems,” Fountain notes.
The impressive results were obtained not in a laboratory setting but in
actual childcare centers on the north side of Jacksonville. The funds were used
to purchase high-quality learning materials, establish classroom book-lending
libraries, engage teachers in ongoing professional development activities and
assess the children’s progress.
The gift supported the refinement of a curriculum called the Early Literacy
and Learning Model (ELLM). In 2002, that curriculum was tested in a randomized
field trial supported by a U.S. Department of Education grant. It showed
significant improvement in areas of alphabet letter recognition and early
reading achievement when compared to a control group of children.
The program’s success gratifies the Petways. “The stellar results produced by
the Florida Institute of Education and Dr. Fountain far surpassed the very high
expectations we established 10 years ago,” the Petways noted in a prepared
statement. “Without literacy, it’s impossible to learn. The team’s
accomplishments are so gratifying to us and we are pleased they will be a vital
component in education going forward.”The early success of the program also has
stimulated the development of ELLM/Plus, a second-generation curriculum that
expands the literacy focus to enhance children’s background knowledge, critical
to future reading comprehension. This program is being implemented in hundreds
of preschool classrooms in Jacksonville and across Florida.
For Fountain, the proof of success is not in the money raised but in the lives
changed. “It has made it possible to change the quality of early learning for
thousands of low-income children.”
That proof not only leveraged additional grants to strengthen early literacy
education but also served as a model for other child-focused organizations such
as the Jacksonville Journey Early Learning Program under the auspices of the
Early Learning Coalition of Duval County and Mayor Peyton’s Jacksonville Early
“In 10 years the gift made by the Petways provided a model that helped
inspire monumental changes to the ways in which early learning and literacy
education are carried out in Jacksonville and across the state. These changes
underscore the importance of community-university partnership programs,”
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