Education Begins with Opportunity


As a lifelong learner, I have always loved school and embraced new opportunities to increase my knowledge on a variety of subjects. When I was young, my mother was a preschool teacher and she and my father read to my sister and me daily. Unfortunately, the opportunities I had growing up and the support I received from my parents are not the norm in every home. I believe we have an opportunity and obligation to help provide all children in our community with access to the resources they need to thrive while in and out of school.

As I begin my first month of service as the President & CEO of United Way of North Central Florida (UWNCFL), I want to share my vision for our community, focused on education.

Because we have two premiere institutions of higher education in our community, many local children dream of one day attending the University of Florida and Santa Fe College. It is my hope that every child in North Central Florida has the support and opportunities he or she needs to thrive educationally.

Every child needs to be reading on grade level when they enter fourth grade. Prior to fourth grade, a child is “learning to read.” Once fourth grade begins, they must move forward in their education and begin to “read to learn.”

However, only 56 percent of the third graders in Alachua County schools can read on grade level. Law enforcement leaders have said that if a child can’t read on grade level by fourth grade, there’s a good chance that he or she will end up in the juvenile justice or adult criminal justice system. In fact, companies that build prisons use this data to determine how many prison beds they will need in a community.

For the last five years, UWNCFL has implemented the ReadingPals program in six schools and one after-school center. Through this program, 140 first-, second- and third-grade students are matched with volunteers who read with them weekly. These unforgettable mentors help to create a positive relationship, based on reading, and keep the kids on track. In addition, through UWNCFL’s Community Investment Fund, nearly $350,000 supports 11 education-related programs led by local agencies.

My goal is for every child in North Central Florida to thrive. To achieve this goal, we need to come together as a community to support early learning centers and public schools. Every child deserves to have access to quality and affordable medical and dental care, healthy and nutritious food and opportunities to be reading on grade level when they enter fourth grade. I look forward to creating new partnerships in North Central Florida to help improve educational outcomes and working with many of you in the months and years ahead.

For more information about UWNCFL education initiatives, please contact me at [email protected]. For more information on volunteering with ReadingPals, please contact Rahkiah Brown at [email protected].

By Mona Gil de Gibaja, MSW, Ph.D. (President & CEO, United Way of North Central Florida)

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