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Gift to establish literacy initiative also generates millions in grants


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 Literacy Program.


“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,” Fountain says.