The Way Forward

Local charity organization targets the achievement gap

Posted on November 30, 2017

For nearly 100 years, United Way of San Diego County has improved the quality of life and future outlook for countless San Diegans. Despite its longevity, President and CEO Laurie Coskey is quick to acknowledge that while people may be very familiar with the United Way name, what the organization actually does isn’t as well known. “We haven’t been very good at telling our story,” says Coskey. Just over a year into her tenure, she is ready to clear that up and make sure people know exactly how the charity works to help deflect poverty.

United Way conducted a study in 2014 to identify where help was needed most. It resulted in a renewed emphasis on children, specifically erasing the achievement gap through education. Coskey has career experience advocating for low wage working families, and has seen firsthand the effects of poverty on children. “People are food insecure, transportation insecure, housing insecure, and all of these really affect a child’s ability to learn,” Coskey says. Pointing to research that has identified third grade reading aptitude as a marker for high school graduation rates, United Way created programs to give kids additional support at this critical transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

United Way

Laurie Coskey

In 2017, literacy summer camps geared to ensure maximum skill retention over the long break resulted in 85 percent of its 300 participants reading at or above grade level upon completion. Coskey recalls one East African immigrant child’s heartwarming response after being asked how she felt after finishing the program: “Happy, excited, and confident.” Attendance intervention programs ensure kids get to school; studies show that every missed day of school takes kids about one-and-a-half days to catch up.

United Way also offers career pathways for older kids in 15 school districts and five community college districts, providing real-life work-based learning experience for high school students. In one year, participation leapt from 4,000 students to 16,000. “We’re trying to scale quickly for the benefit of kids in San Diego,” says Coskey.

The organization has less than 50 full-time employees but each year serves more than 100,000 San Diegans. Beyond programs for children, the group offers an on-site food pantry, mortgage assistance, utilities assistance, transportation, medical needs, and even tax preparation. An ordained rabbi, Coskey sees her work as an “urban ministry,” but she’s not alone in her vision. “The people I work with, our board, our ambassadors, really treat their work with United Way also as a calling. You would expect me to have a calling, I’m actually clergy, but people are absolutely committed to United Way and the work that we do, and I find that very inspiring.” uwsd.org, [email protected]   Deanna Murphy

Photography courtesy of Doug Gates Photography

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