Munro Richardson may have taken on the hardest job in all of Mecklenburg County.
He moved here several weeks ago from Kansas City, Mo., to be executive director of Read Charlotte, a new program that aims to improve the reading skills of Mecklenburg children by the time they reach third grade.
Incredibly, only 40 percent of our third-grade students can read at grade level. Read Charlotte has set a goal to raise that proficiency rate to 80 percent by 2025. That’s just 10 years away.
With such an audacious goal stated so publicly, and with local funders committing $5.5 million to the task, Richardson knows his performance will be under a spotlight.
“Either you hit 80 percent or you didn’t,” he said. “You can’t hide from it. You can’t.”
Unlike some other local organizations that seek to improve reading proficiency among children, Read Charlotte will not operate reading programs, Richardson said. Instead, it will act as a coordinator with local organizations already doing that work, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Richardson compares his job to that of an air traffic controller.
On Thursday, the Foundation for the Carolinas hosted a breakfast – complete with a grits bar — to welcome Richardson and his family to Charlotte and the South. He got a chance to meet leaders from some of the organizations that will serve as partners with Read Charlotte.
Afterwards, he sat down with Qcitymetro Editor Glenn H. Burkins to talk about his new challenge.
Q. What attracted you to this job?
I remember showing this job to my wife, the posting I saw around Christmas last year. She said, ‘That would be perfect for you.’ To be honest, I didn’t think I’d have much of a shot. I was sure that…Charlotte is a big city, there would be someone local. But I had to try. I had been deeply immersed in this work around third-grade reading for about two years. The mayor in Kansas City had started a summer initiative called Turn The Page, and he asked me to join the board. Increasingly I felt I could do more in this role than being one voice on a board… If there’s one thing I want to be expert at, it is how to create change in a community. There are lots of task forces, lots of great ideas, but actually creating change…that’s really hard.
Q. What have you learned from any past failures you might have had?
I think the biggest lesson I have is, ideas matter, but execution matters even more, and having the right people. You can’t do everything by yourself. Having the right people together, working with you, is incredibly important. I can’t overstate the importance of that. You have to be extremely execution oriented. There are just too many good ideas floating around. But what separates success from mediocrity and failure is an unrelenting focus on execution… What I like about Read Charlotte is, it’s a big, clear goal. Either you hit 80 percent or you don’t. You can’t hide from it. You can’t. I think we have a legitimate shot at doing it. I wouldn’t have picked up and moved my family if I didn’t think we did.
Q. How did we get to this place, where only 40 percent of our third graders can read at grade level?
I think it’s a couple of things. Obviously, all of this begins at home. If you’re a child growing up in a home where you’re not being stimulated, where you’re not hearing enough words…we know that 85 percent of brain development happens in the first two years. If you show up at school and you don’t know how to write your name, you don’t know your colors, you don’t know your numbers, you are significantly behind other kids that know all those things. This is not an issue that is just limited to one group. There is no school that you can go to across Mecklenburg County where you don’t have these same challenges. Some of this has to do, obviously, with segregation and resources and what happens in schools, but it also has to do with what happens to families and the kind of support they have.
Q. What is Read Charlotte going to look like on the ground? What are we going to see?
I think first of all, you are going to see a lot of active partnerships and a very intentional approach to collaboration. Read Charlotte does not run programs, so the programming, the intervention, the connections with kids’ families will happen though partners and partnerships like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and like a number of the other agencies that are working with kids and families. I think a significant part of the work is going to be about aligning the activities from various groups, from birth all the way through third grade.
Q. How are you going to get the community involved? One of the more common complaints I hear is that programs such as this often are too top-down and never truly involve the people most affected.
Actually, I had two conversations about this last week… I’m intentionally interested in understanding the answer to the question ‘why?’ Why is it that we see reading proficiency at such low levels in certain communities? The only way you get that is by talking with children and families and understanding their lived experiences around literacy and not assuming that you understand what the barriers are. The biggest mistake you can make is assuming that you understand what the problems are and what the solutions are without talking to the people who are actually living it. At the end of the day, I want this to be something that, when people talk about Read Charlotte, they talk about ‘we’ and ‘us.’ If it’s ‘they’ and ‘them’ then we will have failed.
Q. Are we going to see you in the community?
You absolutely will see me in the community. One of the biggest challenges is that I haven’t figured out how to clone myself yet. But most definitely, out in the community, out in the schools.
Q. Finally, what do you think of Charlotte? What’s your initial impression?
I love it. I’m going to confess — when I first came to interview, I had no idea I’d be coming to Charlotte. I was in the middle of multiple search processes. We actually shut one down in Chicago. And so I had one that was in Portland. So we were kind of on a Portland-Oregon track. But I was so impressed by the (Charlotte) people and so impressed by what I saw and what I heard, I walked away from more money in Portland to come here to Charlotte, because I think this is a tremendous community. It’s beautiful. The people are incredibly friendly, and I think there is just tremendous opportunity here.
Family: Wife, three daughters
Previous Employment: Spent several years in Kansas City, Mo., co-founding Internet start-up companies in the education arena.
Also worked at: Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Education: BA, University of Kansas; masters, Harvard University and Oxford University; Ph.D., University of Illinois.
Interesting facts: Rhodes Scholar, speaks Mandarin Chinese.