Patrick Brennan serves as the Vice President of Government Relations at Learning Ally. In this interview, we highlight Patrick’s expertise and passion to ensure literacy for all children by advocating for early literacy and early detection of reading challenges, and by building partnerships in the states to solve the literacy crisis in our nation.
Growing Up as a Struggling Reader
Patrick grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and attended Bruns Avenue Elementary, a Title I school in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District was using the Whole Language approach to teach reading. Despite his teachers and parents’ best efforts, the lack of resources caused Patrick to struggle with dyslexia until he reached the 5th grade. Patrick’s grandmother, a teacher for over 30 years, eventually intervened and taught him by emphasizing the competencies of reading that are now included in Scarborough’s “Reading Rope,” including: phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of familiar words.
Underfunded schools with struggling students are commonplace in the U.S. as one in four children grow up without ever learning how to read (The Literacy Project). Brennan has adopted a “last to first mentality” that drives the policy work done by Learning Ally’s Government Relations Team to advocate for underserved students. “We know that how you run the race is often impacted by how you start. We want to give our racerunners, our students, the best possible chance out of the starting blocks,” he says.
Proficiency or Lack Thereof in American Schools
Learning Ally aims to solve the nation’s literacy crisis by 2040. Patrick explains “Literacy doesn’t just affect individuals, it affects our society as a whole.” Illiteracy costs the U.S. economy $225 billion annually (Reading is Fundamental). This cost is associated with children who cannot read proficiently by the 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. In addition, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare (Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation). Literacy is foundational to the prosperity of our citizens and nation. “By focusing on prevention rather than intervention, we can drastically change the trajectory of so many more children who slip through the cracks in early education,” shares Brennan. “Through preventative measures, not only does the student benefit, but ALL of society benefits.
Government Relations Approach
Learning Ally’s Government Relations Team seeks to understand what’s happening in state governments’ surrounding education, funding, and literacy. His team identifies priorities and concerns through conversations with educators, parents, legislators, and students. Communication allows them to develop and contextualize funding initiatives that support solutions based on the unique challenges and needs in each state.
Whole Child Literacy Focus
Brennan says, “Our whole child approach to literacy encourages everyone to come to the table. We strive to develop a shared understanding of how to best serve students. We help people pursue a legislative strategy that brings forth constituents, education leaders, and legislators who are united to find the right funding solutions that will improve literacy for all. Applying a whole child literacy approach is crucial because simply focusing on the competencies of reading is not enough to support children. We have to ensure that every child has what they need so that when they sit down at their desk to learn, they’re ready and able.”
Early Literacy State Initiatives
Patrick and Governor Gavin Newsom (CA) bonded over their shared experience as struggling readers. They recounted the impact of reading parent-teacher conference reports which raised concerns about their ability to be successful in the classroom. Brennan and Newsom both agreed that being categorized as struggling students discouraged them; and, they may not have progressed through school and into their current roles if it had not been for the support of their loved ones.
An example of the Government Relations Team advocacy efforts is the California Dyslexia Initiative (CDI) which was created because of the growing call for early literacy screening. Schools that could afford screeners put their processes into motion, but many lacked basic funding and were left behind. The Government Relations Team worked with Governor Newsom, UCSF, UCLA, and Stanford Graduate School of Education to bring the early literacy screening to scale on a statewide basis. Governor Newsom’s inclusion of the CDI in his budget made this screening program available to all kindergarteners through third graders in California at no-cost. This Initiative is currently piloting. Learning Ally is identifying and recruiting students who may benefit from the screening process in the state. Brennan says, “Given the importance of early detection, we are replicating this process in other states so more children can have accessible and affordable screening available to them.” In addition to the CDI, the Learning Ally Government Relations team is piloting the Learning Ally/Reach Every Reader Screener in Florida and South Carolina.
Advocacy Advice to Educators
Brennan offers thoughts to educators who are interested in working with legislators to help them better understand how to create policies that support their work in the classroom. "We can build strength in numbers, because while legislators can ignore one person, it’s a lot harder to ignore many people. This advice stems from the United State’s motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” which translates to “One From Many”. If we can bring the many together and advocate for one approach, then that will help to motivate change in action. Don’t wait to get involved. Legislators need to hear from educators who are responsible for implementing new policies. Learning Ally connects educators to policymakers; however, we encourage educators to go directly to legislators to vocalize your priorities, concerns, and your students’ experiences and needs. Legislators have the power to amplify the voices of their constituency. They want and need to know how to best strengthen our education system with a “literacy for all” mentality.”
Article by Chloe Erickson, Government Relations Senior Advisor