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UW Literacy Center Promises Statewide Impact

April 3, 2014
Woman teaching students
University of Wyoming Lab School teacher Marla Scheer reads to students in UW’s new Literacy Research Center and Clinic. The center will focus on family literacy, early childhood literacy, disciplinary literacies and tutoring of struggling readers. (UW Photo)

A University of Wyoming facility vision that began as a focal point for literacy education research is now open as an outreach hub designed to initiate and support programs across the state -- and to host collaborative research with scholars around the nation and the world.

With the March 27 opening of the new UW Literacy Research Center and Clinic (LRCC) come new opportunities in three areas:

-- Connecting, supporting and expanding existing literacy programs across Wyoming.

-- Providing a home base for UW faculty and graduate students researching literacy across the life span.

-- Inviting visiting scholars with literacy research expertise to collaborate and contribute.

UW’s first Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair in Literacy Education, Jim Bauman, provided the vision and the inspiration for the LRCC.

“In its initial conceptualization, it was going to be like other centers around the country -- a research center, largely funded by federal and state grants and largely devoted to faculty research,” says George Kamberelis, UW’s second literacy education endowed chair.

When Bauman left UW, Kamberelis and then-College of Education Dean Kay Persichitte revisited the original proposal for the center.

“When I came to understand the state of Wyoming a little better, it seemed to me that the typical research center that was proposed in the original white paper really wasn’t the best fit,” he recalls.

Kamberelis, Persichitte and incoming Excellence Chair Victoria Gillis led the development of a revised vision of the project, one firmly grounded in the university’s outreach tradition. The primary focus of the center would be to build partnerships with schools, school districts, community-based organizations and state agencies that had good ideas for literacy activities and programs, and wanted some assistance developing them. These partnerships would focus on linking College of Education faculty expertise with partner projects and priorities, strengthening the college’s commitment to UW’s land-grant purpose.

“One of the things the literacy center can do is become a hub that identifies and connects many existing, powerful literacy-related activities and programs around the state,” Kamberelis says, “to raise awareness that there are many people and organizations doing good literacy work around the state and to connect those that make sense to connect.”

Nurturing new research and program delivery relationships -- and building new ties -- is essential.

“We’ve worked hard to build partnerships that are really robust and vital,” Kamberelis says. “Some others are emerging at the moment, but they will become more robust in time.”

Expanding, transforming literacy education in Wyoming

Core literacy education programs at UW focus on four areas: family literacy, early childhood literacy, disciplinary literacies and tutoring of struggling readers. Each area now sees potential expansion with the increased capacity that the LRCC represents.

For example, UW faculty members and graduate students are exploring ways to expand a local student tutoring program to reach more areas of the state. UW instructional staff members will be able to draw from the Albany County model to recruit, train and support literacy-expert tutors around Wyoming using distance technologies housed at the center.

Technology also will create new opportunities to deliver customized or general statewide professional development programming. An example of that service is a series of 22 half-day family literacy workshops delivered to Wyoming Department of Family Services staff. Programs like that series, originally delivered face to face, can now be delivered via the state’s Outreach Video Network (OVN) system or using web conferencing tools from the LRCC.

Not only does the LRCC offer a campus home for UW’s own literacy researchers, but it also offers space -- and funding -- for visiting faculty scholars interested both in developing their own research agendas and in contributing to the center’s programs.

Dedicated office space is available for faculty members from other institutions to come to UW during their sabbaticals. Private funding will allow some of those scholars to extend sabbatical time from six months to a year, with the proviso that half of their work be spent supporting one or more programs sponsored by the literacy center.

Kamberelis also anticipates opening similar opportunities to bright, early-career literacy researchers who may lack disciplinary peer support at their home institutions -- and ultimately extending the expertise available to support center programming. Creating new research collaboration opportunities, and supporting early-career literacy scholars’ individual interests, expands the larger knowledge base and enriches programming offered through the center.

“We can involve top-level professionals who don’t work at the university in the activities of the literacy center,” he says.

An opportunity also is anticipated to involve UW faculty members based in other colleges and programs who study literacy from perspectives other than education -- such as communication, English and speech pathology.

“I’m hoping that it becomes increasingly interdisciplinary over time,” Kamberelis says.

Building multi-stakeholder support

Growing the broad support needed to bring the LRCC to its launch has been a multi-year, multi-partner, multi-funder process. One key to the project’s success is the institutional commitment represented in the center’s inclusion in the UW academic planning process. Becoming a university priority raised the LRCC’s visibility, especially with potential donors. Private funding, matched by state funds provided by the Wyoming State Legislature, ultimately made the launch possible. Success in obtaining operational funds, including funds for staffing needs, from private sources was essential, according to Gillis.

“Outreach projects require so much manpower, and most traditional funding sources are reluctant to support labor-intensive outreach work,” Gillis says. "Private gifts are thus essential to support the level of staffing required to enact current and future literacy projects."

The visibility and support generated around the state, starting with the former dean, Persichitte, has been critical.

“Kay was a central player as we envisioned the center, and she is largely responsible for the fact that the center is going to be launched,” Kamberelis says. “She did incredible work around the state and with the UW Foundation. Not only did she raise public awareness about the center, but she also pointed out that the literacy center will be an exemplar for how the entire college might engage in the land-grant mission -- in a way, reimagining how the college serves the state.”

Wyoming first lady Carol Mead has been another lead ally in promoting both the center and literacy more generally.

“Our first lady has been very instrumental in supporting us in many ways,” Gillis says. Among many other efforts, Mrs. Mead convened two meetings at the governor’s residence in Cheyenne.

“Those meetings were real opportunities for incubating ideas and making connections,” Gillis says of the targeted events the first lady hosted. She also acknowledges Mrs. Mead’s ongoing commitment to continue the conversation throughout the state, not only about the potential of the LRCC but of the value of literacy more generally.

Hear Professor George Kamberelis discuss the importance of statewide outreach and cooperation in expanding literacy education in Wyoming.Hear Professor George Kamberelis discuss the importance of statewide outreach and cooperation in expanding literacy education in Wyoming.

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