By way of introduction, I’m Brad Grob and last year I became National Board Chair for Learning Ally (formerly RFB&D). I wanted to reach out to provide an update of where Learning Ally has been and where we are going. The organization has been through much change in the last several years and I think it’s important to reflect on that journey we have collectively been on to advance our mission of helping blind/visually impaired (“BVI”) and learning disabled (“LD”) students achieve educational success.
After all, this is why each of us puts in the time that we do – it’s always been about helping our students
. The good news is that as a result of this change, the organization has made tremendous progress with respect to its services, technology, and student impact.
Before I begin, just a quick note that might give you a sense of my perspective. I joined Learning Ally’s Los Angeles Unit Board in 2001 and became Unit Board Chair from 2003 to 2006. I remained on the local Board for many years (until 2012) even as I joined the National Board in 2005. I mention this because I have had the privilege of working with Learning Ally both locally and nationally.
The recession of 2008 resulted in the “perfect storm.” Donations plummeted (as they did for all non-profits) and our federal funding went away. The only way that Learning Ally would survive and continue its mission was to significantly reduce costs, consolidate operations and really focus on what our students needed from us to be successful. This was the reason for closing many studios and significantly reducing headquarter staffing and expenses. To put the numbers in perspective, in 2010 we had an expense base of $30m. In FY2016, we will have an expense base of $16m. This consolidation was difficult for everybody involved. It was a major shift in our culture.
There was a silver lining in all of this. If we were going to survive and start growing again, we had to reevaluate everything
we were doing. It meant asking a lot of tough questions. Were we focused on the right products to meet student, teacher, and parent needs? How can we reach significantly more students with less cost? Given the many changes in technology and education, what would be the likely implications for Learning Ally? How do we grow our audiobook production given less physical studios? How do we get better and more efficient at our fundraising? There has been tremendous focus in investing every dollar to maximize the impact on our students and their educational success.
As a result, we now provide more and better services to over 180,000 students at over 8,000 schools at dramatically reduced cost. As our new name suggests, there is more going on at Learning Ally than just recording books for blind and dyslexic students. Examples include: programs for our students such as YES! and College Success for the Blind and Visually Impaired; parent support services including parent consults, webinars and tutor/certifier referrals; and educator support tools like Teacher Ally.
- A major learning from our “introspection” is that the audiobook alone is not sufficient to ensure student success. We’ve added several significant services to make us more effective. We’ve created a new set of services to assist parents – everything from one-on-one consultations to answer their many questions about dyslexia, assistance in finding specialists who can help their kids, on-going webinars on dyslexia related-topics, etc. For teachers, we’ve created extensive training to help them understand the basics of dyslexia and what to do differently in their classroom. Last year alone we estimate that we reached almost 15,000 parents and teachers through these efforts.
- Our audiobook solution has been completely transformed. Students can now download audiobooks directly onto their smartphone, tablet, or computer. Gone are the days when kids refused to use our products because of concern that using a special playback device would identify them as “different” from other kids. In 2015, over 750,000 books were borrowed by students as compared to 430,000 in 2014. Over 11 million pages were read by our members in 2015. For schools and districts, they now have access to our Teacher Ally product. This revolutionary technology allows districts or individual schools to purchase a single solution that enables teachers to easily enroll their students and then download the appropriate books. We can tell them exactly how many students are registered, how many books and pages they’ve read, etc. Since Teacher Ally is a web-based portal, it also allows us to have ongoing engagement with our teachers. For example, we can answer questions such as: how do I best use audiobooks in my classroom, how do I get a student to start using audiobooks, how do I connect with other teachers, how do I best engage parents in their child’s learning, etc.
- Even though we’ve closed a number of physical studios, we have not missed a beat. We've taken advantage of technology to create a virtual studio where anybody can record from the comfort of home. The result is that our largest “studio” is now our virtual one with over 300 volunteers. Based on member feedback, with your help we have changed our focus from quantity to quality to help ensure our members have a consistent and better user experience. We have re-recorded our highest circulating books using our new integrated voice and text format. By eliminating local servers and utilizing electronic formatting, we not only benefit from significant cost savings on shipping books, we can now assign chapters of a book to volunteers across the country resulting in dramatically shortened times to fulfill the book needs for our members. While we certainly have lost volunteers when we closed studios, and are grateful for their service, the number of virtual volunteers continues to grow. I constantly hear that they love being a virtual volunteer in that they don’t have to fight traffic to get to/from a studio and instead can focus their precious time on producing more books. Now anybody can become a reader, checker, or pre-production volunteer regardless of where they live.
The result of all of this is that we are having a bigger impact on student success.
So back to where I started this letter….where are we going? The bottom line is that our mission is the same – “we are a national non-profit dedicated to helping blind, visually impaired and dyslexic students succeed in education.
” We’ve gotten “lean and mean” but have wisely invested our resources in leveraging technology, developing new services that enable student success and being more selective in how we invest our resources.
Thank you again for all of the time you have contributed to Learning Ally. We were all drawn to the organization for the same reason – to help our students overcome major challenges and be successful in both their educational endeavors and life in general. Together, we are making his happen.
National Board Chair