Purposeful Interview: Jeani Frickey Saito + The Drive for Literacy

Jeani Frickey

When you were in school, studying journalism, what did you expect to do for your career?

I grew up admiring investigative reporters. I really saw journalism as a way to advocate and change the world. But, when I was in college, Metro still had The Capitol Reporter, a weekly paper that covered the state legislature. We were all responsible for a beat and somehow mine ended up being the Joint Budget Committee and Appropriations. I remember sitting through JBC Hearings as a sophomore in college, trying to get a handle on everything. That is where I fell in love with the Capitol.

When you think of yourself as an advocate, who has helped you be who you are today?

I‘m a kid of the Cold War. Lech Walesa’s work in Poland, came about in a pretty formative time for me.  I watched the Polish solidarity movement, watched the Berlin Wall come down, and admired what it took for regular people to stand up to an authoritarian government. My dad taught night school and after he came home, we stayed up late watching Ted Koppel on Nightline. I can remember watching Boris Yeltsin stand in front of the tanks, and staying up late to watch the coverage of Tiananmen Square. As the Cold War ended, I can tell you where I was for many pivotal points. Social resistance is something I will stop and pay attention to and do whatever I can in solidarity.

What’s one thing you’re working on now that you’re passionate about, personally or professionally?

That’s easy: early literacy. Only 40% of kids in Colorado can read on grade level by 3rd grade. I’m fortunate that this is not only major work for us as an organization, but also meaningful to me, personally. When I worked on the READ Act, I was just a business lobbyist, but as soon as I learned about how critical it was for students to be reading by third grade, and a whole new world opened up for me.

Early literacy is a non-negotiable now. A healthy Democracy relies on educated and engaged citizens. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s a national threat to have people who are disenfranchised because they can’t read written news or written information from candidates and elected officials. Think of the battles waged in the Middle East over construction of a school, and the battles for girls in developing countries to become educated. There’s no excuse for our country for not doing better, with all of the resources we have. The research is clear about what it takes to help struggling readers become readers by their eighth birthday. There’s no excuse for us not working to make that happen.

What are some strategies or tools that you use to push for early literacy?

Passing a bill, like the READ Act, was a good start, but we learned the real work is in implementation. CDE’s Department of Early literacy is doing a lot of really good work to help support districts, schools and teachers. Canon City’s school district is working with CDE and the initial results are impressive. I’m proud of the success we had in passing the READ Act but we can’t declare a victory literacy rates significantly increase.

Do you see that in schools where you have organizers?

The principal leading the turnaround work at Goldrick Elementary told us she wanted to focus on literacy. Literacy rates at this school have been around 15%, plus or minus. We first learned what she was doing to work with teachers. We needed a clear way to engage parents, outside of the usual tactics. Out of that came a Literacy Pledge. We developed three easy steps that parents can do to help support kids reading. I’m excited about the promise this has. More than 80 parents showed up to a literacy night at a school where two years ago you would have been hard-pressed to get 10. The principal’s commitment to literacy is clear.  So out of the 80 parents who attended, 50 signed the pledge after hearing about it and after hearing the principal’s commitment to literacy. We hope to have 125 parents sign the pledge by the end of the year.

What do they do to follow through on the pledge?

The first thing is parents agree to learn about why early literacy is so important. They commit to attend a workshop and sign up for monthly reminders that they receive by email or text, in English or in Spanish.  We stick with really basic tips, like “don’t forget to check the library over winter break.”

The second part is committing to read to or have their child read to them 20 minutes a day. This can be a big lift for families but it’s game changing. It takes commitment and building it into a routine, just like we tell kids to brush their teeth twice a day. I know I feel like it’s big victory when my daughter has read five nights a week.

The third part is they connect with their teacher about their child’s reading progress. The commit to attend their child’s parent teacher conference and ask about the student’s reading progress. If their child has a READ plan, they participate in the creation of that READ plan. As part of the pledge, we provide support to parents so that they can participate.

The daughter of a high school art teacher and librarian, Jeani Frickey Saito grew up in Lakewood and attended Jefferson County Public Schools. After more than 15 years as a successful contract lobbyist, Jeani left a diverse client base to lead Stand for Children Colorado and focus her full-time attention to issues impacting education.