How can we maximize the impact of our literacy efforts in our schools and communities? Learn how in our conversations with Ronda Hightower and Ronda Walker of Laurens County Schools.

Ronda Hightower and Ronda Walker in Classroom Conversations

How can we maximize the impact of our literacy efforts in our schools and communities? Learn how in our conversations with Ronda Hightower and Ronda Walker of Laurens County Schools.


Ashley Mengwasser: Good day, educators. To the teachers and leaders listening today, welcome to Classroom Conversations. Classroom Conversations is an award-winning podcast series brought to you by the Georgia Department of Education, GaDOE and Georgia Public Broadcasting, GPB. I'm Ashley Mengwasser, your host of the half hour here to entertain your ears. What shall we jump into today? Well, how about this? The point of it all, what is the point? I mean that in a thought-provoking way, not a nihilistic way to be clear. Put differently, what is the why for our entire educational system? Follow my thinking here. Imagine with me a student, a happy one at her desk, in a classroom, in a school. If we stop expanding our view here, we'd see our happy student as a participant in a school as the full picture. But we've got to pull back the lens more, zoom out even farther to see the fuller scope that this happy student's school is in a community. This piece is the crux of it all. This piece is the point fireworks happen, when we allow ourselves to feel the full force of that beautiful fact. This today is a literacy leadership episode about engaging community. Based on my aerial view exercise just now, it's clearer how literacy is important to a community. Literacy is not just a personal skill. At what level does that happy student read? Oh, no. Literacy is a social cultural phenomenon shaped by and shaping our communities. It's directly linked to feeling included and adequate where we live. Think about the effect of literacy on a person's whole entire world, on their relationships, their happiness, their independence problem-solving skills and future employment. When a school and community are in cahoots for literacy, oh yeah, baby literacy multiplies. Today I bring you a special episode recorded remotely at WUGA in Athens. We've left our studio in Atlanta this time so that the engaging community episode takes place out in the community, and my guests came here. Allow me to enthrall you with the Rondas, two Rondas on today's show, definitely a Classroom Conversations first, and they're both from the same district. Meet Dr. Ronda Hightower, associate superintendent and Ronda Walker, district literacy coach, both from Laurens County School District. Laurens County is located in the center of our great state with the city of Dublin at its core. Welcome.

Ronda Walker: Thank you.

Ronda Hightower: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Ashley Mengwasser: They even speak in unison. It's so bizarre. How are you doing today?

Ronda Hightower: We are doing well.

Ashley Mengwasser: Good.

Ronda Hightower: We can't wait to talk about the great work that's taking place.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm going to have to call you-

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... Hightower, Ronda.

Ronda Hightower: That works.

Ashley Mengwasser: Let's hear from Walker so we can understand your voice.

Ronda Walker: We are very excited to be here and to tell you all about the wonderful literacy partners that have been created in Laurens County.

Ashley Mengwasser: You guys are going to be blown away when you hear the incredible things that are taking place in Laurens County. Hightower, for today's episode, let's start with you. Tell me why you are both in Athens today. It's relevant. We've got a literacy coach and an associate superintendent here for the same reason, and what is that?

Ronda Hightower: Yes. Well, we were here earlier in the week for the fall GACIS Conference, of course, but now we're here today to talk about all the wonderful partnerships that have really improved literacy in our community and made literacy more visible and valued in the Laurens County community.

Ashley Mengwasser: So, it was an actual literacy leadership conference, really?

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: What were you listening for, Ronda Walker?

Ronda Walker: How to develop literacy leaders in our schools.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, which is really, really the crux of what we're going to talk about today. Quite a lot in common, you two; first names, district, shared literacy mission. What else? Anything else related to your names per chance?

Ronda Hightower: We did have the odd encounter of discovering maybe after a year of knowing each other, and I would not dare share my middle name with her.

Ashley Mengwasser: Of course not.

Ronda Walker: But of course-

Ronda Hightower: She did not care.

Ronda Walker: ... I have no shame.

Ashley Mengwasser: Walker says I have no shame.

Ronda Hightower: So, we accidentally discovered we also have the same middle name, and it is also spelled exactly the same as our first names are spelled exactly the same as well.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. You were destined to work alongside each other, I think. You both share, you told me, a love of the outdoors, but your take on outdoors, quote, unquote, "is a wee bit different." Walker, what are you into when it comes to the outdoors?

Ronda Walker: I love running, biking, swimming. I'm a triathlete.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah.

Ronda Walker: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: Feet on the ground?

Ronda Walker: Right.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right.

Ronda Walker: Mm-hmm.

Ashley Mengwasser: Even your name is symbolic there, Walker. What's your take on loving the outdoors, Hightower?

Ronda Hightower: Number one, the beach. That does not involve running or cycling or any of those things, but I do like zip lining and skydiving and mostly spending time with my family outdoors.

Ashley Mengwasser: You enjoy sitting in your high tower-

Ronda Hightower: Oh, my.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... and looking upon the views and marveling. That's a beautiful thing. And Ronda, Hightower, you've had 25 years in education. You've been associate superintendent for seven of those. Tell us about your positions prior to your associate superintendent post.

Ronda Hightower: I had the honor of serving as a first-grade teacher and then a fifth-grade teacher, and that is where my heart still is and beats for the classroom, the work that is taking place there. Then I began to step into administration as an assistant principal and then a principal of a fabulous school for seven years and now associate superintendent in Laurens County. So I've had a journey, which is interesting because I really started my journey in education as a secretary at the board office as I finished my college degree. So now my journey has come full circle, and I'm back in that same board office as an associate superintendent.

Ashley Mengwasser: So really it was your love as a practitioner, as a teacher-

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... that kept you in the game. Walker, you have a similar story.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: You were in the classroom too. What did you teach?

Ronda Walker: I actually have taught everything from pre-K disabilities-

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Ronda Walker: ... up to fifth grade, and I've been in the regular classroom. I've been a co-teacher. I've been a resource teacher, an interventionist. So I've really had the opportunity to serve in all the different spots that you would find in an elementary school.

Ashley Mengwasser: When I first spoke with you, you told me you do it for the light in their eyes.

Ronda Walker: Oh.

Ashley Mengwasser: Tell me about that.

Ronda Walker: Oh, when you see a child learn something and get it, the light and the happiness and the joy that you see in their eyes, there's nothing like it, and that is why we do what we do.

Ashley Mengwasser: Exactly right. For you, Ronda Hightower, what does this career mean to you?

Ronda Hightower: This career means empowering teachers to make those light bulb moments come on for those kids. One of my favorite authors is Steve Pemberton, and he wrote a book called The Lighthouse Effect. In it he talks about being a human lighthouse and being able to change the trajectory of some students' lives through the field of education. I think that's what we get the honor to do. We get to serve as human lighthouses for students, and I can think of no other great place to serve.

Ashley Mengwasser: Is that how you feel, Walker?

Ronda Walker: Oh, amen.

Ashley Mengwasser: That pretty much says it.

Ronda Walker: Oh, it does.

Ashley Mengwasser: I think you guys are our human lighthouses today. Your energy is just so effusive and so positive, and when our audience hears the initiatives that are afoot in your county in terms of literacy, they're all going to be blown away, jaws on the floor. You heard what I said in the beginning about the link between literacy and community. Did you agree? Did you agree with that? Anything to add there?

Ronda Walker: I think you said it beautifully. It takes the community. It takes everyone to raise that child in a healthy, happy situation. I know Ronda says it well, we go back to how we got started and the Literacy Task Force, and you may want to jump in here and talk about that.

Ronda Hightower: No, that is fine. We realized just like Get Georgia Reading says that it's going to take more than just our wonderful teachers, our great schools and our loving parents, that it's going to take all of us working together. When we introduced that sense of urgency to our community partners, our business owners, our organization leaders, our civic leaders, they caught on and then we transformed from energy, separate energy happening in our county to synergy with everyone now having a focus of we are in this truly for the kids. That is not just a cliche. Our efforts where we put our money and where we put our time says that.

Ashley Mengwasser: That cohesion is priceless. To be sitting in a room of stakeholders in the community and for them to have the same mission of you, which is getting kids reading, thinking of it as the community driver here as we need to look at each of ourselves as a member of a community really changed it for me. It turned that switch. This is not just a private personal skill that I do alone in my room in my bed cuddled up with a good book. It starts there, but the effects are so far-reaching, so far-reaching. I know, before we get into the very wonderful details of your programs, you have looked maybe statewide or nationally at some initiatives that you think are really laudable. What are those initiatives that you've liked to imitate?

Ronda Hightower: First and foremost, I'll say it again, Get Georgia Reading. We really feel like that they have hit the nail on the head with that statement of bringing everyone together. They also help establish a sense of urgency when they show our literacy rates in Georgia that many of us in our school systems have seen. But I do want to be careful that it's not just about a test score or being able to produce a number because everything that counts cannot be counted. We know that literacy can also bring, like our DFCS offices, it brings a sense of safety and security when we teach the parents how to cuddle up with those children in your lab and read a book to them. Who more needs a sense of safety and security than maybe those kids that are having to go through that system? So that is just one, and I know we'll get into our initiatives later.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, what do you have to add to that, Walker?

Ronda Walker: Well, I think just like she said, that a health, that language nutrition, that health as far as going to pediatricians, getting those wellness checks, all those things, and we'll talk later about those initiatives, but all those things are vital for that child to become ready for school, to become a good citizen, a productive citizen, and so it's very far-reaching. It's wonderful work, and we are so thankful for the people that join us in it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, thank you, coach, for your positivity. You have to have that when you're coaching. I'm going to share an example of what I think is a wonderful metaphor for literacy. You guys can think of your own as I'm sharing this, but I like to think of literacy, which we've established, schools are part of a community, I like to think of it as a saloon door in an old western film. I was thinking of this this morning. My southern accent that I never have just came out there. I see our cowboys and cowgirls walking through that saloon door, and it swings back and forth easily. From one side, You're in the school in a simple swing of the door and then you're out, you're out on the street in the western town. I think that that's powerful because we can think of literacy as having that light access to everything. You need it here, you need it there. These are not walled-off divided worlds. They should be interconnected. So can you think of an example that could demonstrate for us the ways that our schools and our communities are hip to hip, if it's another metaphor or something you've seen that proves that this is true?

Ronda Hightower: That we are hip to hip, I would say now five years into our Literacy Task Force is that we do not have to call or solicit or beg.

Ashley Mengwasser: Really?

Ronda Hightower: Our partners have bought into the fact that they have a place at the table in our education system, and many of them will contact us and they'll say, "Hey, I see you're having this event. How can we help?" Or, "We ourselves, our local organization are having an event, how can you guys help?" So the communication is just wide open, and I would say that makes us hip to hip.

Ronda Walker: For example, our Chamber of Commerce, he has just heard about the new literacy bill. He picks up the phone, "What can we do? Let's come look at it. Let's see how we can partner with you to help provide what's needed for the kids."

Ronda Hightower: Immediate action.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, immediate.

Ronda Hightower: Immediate action.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is so impressive. So let's transition now to talk about your campaign Literacy in Laurens. Give me a little bit of overview of who your partners are, when this initiative began and what your overall mission is, and we'll get into the details later.

Ronda Hightower: Okay, great. Well, we started in December of 2017 pulling this committee together and asked for them to come to the first planning session in January of 2018. We had a room full of participants that really didn't know what they were getting into at that moment, other than, "I know it's important that our children learn to read. I know it's important for our workforce development. I know it is important for the improvement of our communities." So they came and in that meeting we established our vision of making literacy more visible and valued in Laurens County. Five years later, that is still our mission from that meeting. Immediately, we began to put forth efforts of working together and to create synergy, and then a few months after that, we were grateful recipients of the L4GA Literacy Grant.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a big one.

Ronda Walker: Oh, yes.

Ronda Hightower: That's a big one. That is the one that really opened the door and made a lot of what we do possible because the partners came with big dreams, which we wanted them to. So this grant really made a lot of things possible, and we jumped in right that summer and began some great things. With our summer feeding program, we had superheroes come out and give out books along with this summer-

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, that's cool.

Ronda Walker: They were our technology men, right?

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ronda Walker: So how great is that?

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Ronda Hightower: That's perfect, they work for our school system. Ronda and I did our first parent training because our parents... I know my children are now adults, I did not know what I know now about how important it is for them to have such a rich language nutrition when they were younger. So we do a parent training called Raising a Reader, and we actually give them a toolbox when they leave of very easy, very economical things and free things to do to build the bridge of great strong language nutrition for young learners. That was just in the first few months?

Ashley Mengwasser: That was the was the first few months.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Here we are about six years later.

Ronda Hightower: Yes. Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: We're going to hear about all the magical things that you're doing, but if you'll add a little bit to this, Walker, tell me about these partners. What sectors are they from? Who are these people?

Ronda Walker: Oh, my goodness. Well, as we go through, I'd love to talk about, as we talk about our partners, what they've done, how we've worked together, because a lot of times, initially, I think we had to bring our partners in whatever we had planned. But now, for example, pilot club, "Hey, we've got the Monster Dash, Ronda, would y'all bring Pete the Cat and give away Pete the Cat books?" Sure.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, they're reaching out to you.

Ronda Walker: Oh, they're reaching out to us, and it is absolutely wonderful. So now it's more about really embedding ourselves in things that our partners are taking part in too. Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Power-

Ashley Mengwasser: Huge.

Ronda Walker: Let's see, Rotary, our recreation department, oh, we had a huge event at our recreation department called The Great American Outdoors. It was probably one of my favorites because we brought in, our STEM teachers came, our Ag teachers came and had different booths. Like the ag teachers, they've got to feel worms-

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, yeah.

Ronda Walker: Yeah, all that ooey-gooey stuff. Then they take a book and an activity about worms.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that.

Ronda Walker: Yeah, we had horses to ride. So that was amazing because we had all these partners, retired teachers came out. Of course, Oconee Fall Line, our technical college, we've partnered with several things. We've gone in and taught their early childhood classes. We've partnered in events at night for their parents. I think we were some snowmen one night-

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Ronda Walker: ... and then-

Ashley Mengwasser: You've done a lot.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ronda Walker: Well, we really have been very lucky and had the opportunity.

Ronda Hightower: Our local library.

Ronda Walker: Our local library is there every event we do.

Ashley Mengwasser: Really?

Ronda Hightower: Oh, yes.

Ronda Walker: Yes. Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is fantastic. With all of this, you're demonstrating so well the link between literacy and life, that it's not just read for school that I was thinking of the dirt and the worms and then get a book on that. These are industries, these are powerful industries in your community that are coming out to participate.

Ronda Walker: Oh, they're absolutely, and you can talk more about this, but East Dublin, we've just put up a StoryWalk there, but how that community came together. Ronda, tell about her that because I think-

Ashley Mengwasser: StoryWalk? What is StoryWalk?

Ronda Walker: Yes.

Ronda Hightower: Well, we have an area that has apartments. It has a large mobile home development near it, lots of students right near this park, and it really needed some upkeep, right? So we partnered with the City of East Dublin, the county commissioner's office, a local construction company donated all the gravel-

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Ronda Hightower: ... yes, at BH Hall. Then we were able to create a walking track there at the park.

Ashley Mengwasser: Really?

Ronda Hightower: The Laurens County school system donated a StoryWalk and the book. So now families come out and they get to read a story page by page, post by post as they walk around the StoryWalk.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, that's so wonderful. That's interesting.

Ronda Walker: But it also led, we had an event out there where our partners came. Yeah, it was wonderful. But it also led to East Dublin taking ownership of that park. They painted the playground equipment.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that.

Ronda Walker: So, it just really, it became something that the community could be really proud of, and we're hoping events take place there now. So that's just one, I just love that.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a wonderful effort. Literacy in Laurens, just by name alone, it includes the county. You want anybody and everyone to be involved. I teased the importance of why in our intro. What is your why behind engaging your community and literacy work this way?

Ronda Walker: Well, I think for me, we know that a baby's brain grows, 80% up to 80% in the first 18 months of life. As we began our work, we said, "Okay, let's brainstorm. Where are these children? How do we get into the homes of these children? How do we get into the places their parents visit?" That really spurred a lot of work in that birth to five, and those agencies like Babies Can't Wait-

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, yeah.

Ronda Walker: ... Children's Medical Services, DFCS, the Health Department, Healthy Start, so it really gave us a gateway into those homes. So we partnered with those people and those agencies providing everything from refrigerator phonics, V-Tech, little things to get that alphabet on the refrigerator-

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, get it on the fridge, man.

Ronda Walker: It's like-

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, I had that when I was a kid. I remember putting apple on the fridge and being like, "Hot dog. I just spelled apple. It's a big deal. Mom, mom get in here."

Ronda Walker: Just giving literacy tips to those parents as they're communicating with them and that and, of course, then we have a big initiative with our hospital.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's equipping families with the tools to have those magic light up moments.

Ronda Walker: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Ronda Hightower, what do you think is the why for all this community engagement?

Ronda Hightower: You encapsulated it in a phrase you said about five minutes ago, literacy for life. I don't mean I'm committed to literacy for the longevity of your life. I mean for the quality-

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, that's so good.

Ronda Hightower: ... of your life is what I mean-

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Ronda Hightower: ... by literacy for life.

Ashley Mengwasser: Life for living.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ronda Walker: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, I just got goosebumps.

Ronda Hightower: Yes. That is my why, because I know with all, and I cannot wait for Ronda to tell you more about our birth to five efforts that she's done such a good job bringing into our community. It will have more of our students ready to learn, and that's important. I want that, and I want our workforce to be increased, but I don't want to overlook the social and-

Ronda Walker: That's right.

Ronda Hightower: ... emotional aspect-

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Ronda Hightower: ... of developing the whole child through literacy. So yeah, so it's literacy for life.

Ashley Mengwasser: Literacy for life. Now you said it. I like that.

Ronda Hightower: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: I like where you went with that, very much, Hightower. Your community Literacy Task Force, who are they? Are these the people who sit on the, quote, "council" with you? They're your task force?

Ronda Hightower: These are all the partners that we have named-

Ashley Mengwasser: Mentioned, okay.

Ronda Hightower: ... in our talk so far. Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay, great. When you wanted to form this incredible force and it is a force, did you reach out to them first and then they brought others and it was a word-of-mouth growth situation. You're nodding, yeah.

Ronda Hightower: Yes, absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: Good.

Ronda Hightower: It was a simple email to maybe 10, 12 partners of which they all responded.

Ashley Mengwasser: They said yes?

Ronda Hightower: Yes, and then from there, it has grown and grown and grown. Earlier this week we had our community Literacy Task Force meeting, and we were shoulder to shoulder. We were like, "We've got to get a bigger room."

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. Packed house.

Ronda Walker: Yes. Yes.

Ronda Hightower: Do you know what happened? One of our partners, Heath Taylor with our Chamber of Commerce said, "Hi, we've got the McGrath Keen Center open, the building-

Ashley Mengwasser: Offered that space?

Ronda Hightower: ... the large room." He said, "Let's do that next time there."

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, my gosh.

Ronda Hightower: One of our local hotel owners, Raj Saxena with Fairfield Inn allowed us to meet there in his conference room-

Ashley Mengwasser: And fed us breakfast.

Ronda Hightower: ... and fed us a buffet breakfast.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is nice.

Ronda Hightower: So, people are just very giving and very much want to be on board, we just bring them together.

Ashley Mengwasser: We could all take a bite of that Laurens County literacy pie because it sounds really, really good, and charming and more importantly, homemade. We all know that the best pies are homemade.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ronda Walker: Yes, we do.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Before we get into the amazing work, and I do want to hear you talk about this, Ronda Walker, about that birth, early age range, but what were the first steps in engaging the community? We have counties here who are just trying to start their own initiatives, who are trying to feel inspired and have that spark of creativity. You mentioned an email to get some partners on board. Beyond that, could you give me a couple of first steps?

Ronda Hightower: I can. I really think our first meeting was crucial in that not only did they just show up, but the work that took place when they showed up. Because the very first thing that we did was develop and articulate a purpose and a vision. That was the first thing. So once everyone was bought in to that purpose and to that vision, there was a sense of urgency. We shared some statistics of how many kids are not reading on grade level. We shared an awesome video from Get Georgia Reading about Baby Ella and what happens to baby Ella if she does not get literacy for life -

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay.

Ronda Hightower: ... and what path that's likely to take her down. That established a sense of urgency. So I say you bring them together simply, but don't leave without a purpose and a vision in a shared sense of urgency to, "We're going to do whatever it takes." Then from there, you've launched and then watch the beautiful work take place.

Ashley Mengwasser: Then you're off.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Then you're off. Any other first steps you want to add, Walker?

Ronda Walker: Dr. Hightower has done an amazing job leading the task force. What we wanted to do is, let's go back to the Get Georgia Reading, developing that language nutrition and also giving kids access to books. We know from the stats that in low socioeconomic homes, there can be maybe one book-

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Ronda Walker: ... per 12 households.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, my gosh. So your goal was get more books out there, ASAP.

Ronda Walker: Let's do it. This is the fun part of the work because I feel like so many people become invested, right? Our CTAE, they built our Little Libraries. We took them to each of our schools. The art teachers had their children design the Little Libraries. Then I hopped in the truck with my transportation director, and we went around town and we strategically decided where can we place these that are going to reach the most kids?

Ashley Mengwasser: You planted books in the community.

Ronda Walker: Yep. So we actually currently have, I think 11, maybe 12 Little Libraries out in the community.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a good first project.

Ronda Walker: But the beautiful thing is now Service League, which is a lady’s group that meets and does service projects, they have a literacy group. I get books and they're used books. I have people, they will just drop books at my house, and so all through the year I just get tubs of books, and they service them for us for the year.

Ashley Mengwasser: Nice.

Ronda Walker: Yes. So it's just, I can remember putting books the first time in one of the little libraries near Boys & Girls Club, and the teacher there said, "I know, we had a boy get off the bus, and he was going, "Oh, my gosh! I painted that Charlie Brown!"

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh.

Ronda Walker: It was a high school kid, but now he's invested in keeping that nice and taking care of that. So I think we started trying to think about ways we could give that access.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, boots on the ground in true-

Ronda Walker: Oh, yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... Ronda Walker fashion, true marathoner.

Ronda Walker: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, you got out there on your feet. That makes perfect sense. I want to talk specifically Literacy in Laurens has a super special initiative that reaches newborns. I know that's been very special to you. Tell us about the work that you're doing with your local hospital.

Ronda Walker: Oh, our local hospital has been an amazing partner from the very beginning. We met with the administration, and if you've never been in an administrative meeting with the hospital, it was quite interesting. I left there, I was like, "Oh, I'm scared of all of them." They all had the departments. They were all gung-ho about, "We've got these rules," so we just continued.

Ashley Mengwasser: You sat up straight in that meeting.

Ronda Walker: Oh, you better believe it and continued to throw out ideas. Where we landed was that they would sign and give every baby that was born the opportunity to sign up for FERST Readers. I'm not sure if you know anything about the organization, but it provides books, a book a month until the child turns five. They also include-

Ashley Mengwasser: Incredible.

Ronda Walker: ... a newsletter that's age appropriate. It's an incredible program. Now we, L4GA has certainly been instrumental in us being able to just really jump start that program. Matter of fact, as we continue with that program, it will have to get more local funding. Because after COVID, we have just been on it, but we also give the babies a little onesie that says, "Read to Me," with our logo in the middle, and it's precious

Ashley Mengwasser: Read to Me onesie.

Ronda Walker: It's precious, but they've also been willing to provide literacy instruction in their prenatal classes, so we love that. They've been a liaison for some of our pediatricians, and we just put a StoryWalk around their walking path at the pond. Matter of fact, and we've waited about two years. It's been here, so then we've just waited for the right time to get it in two weeks ago?

Ronda Hightower: Mm-hmm.

Ronda Walker: So fun.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, my gosh.

Ronda Walker: That was one of in two hours, now it could have been because we had free ice cream, but in two hours we had over 250 kids and their families, this is kids and then they brought families. They were going around, the book was One Duck Stuck and every spot where you could read a page of the book, we had something interactive to give them. The best thing, probably a week later, I come across a lady and she goes, "Oh, you wouldn't believe my son is sleeping with those little interactive toys y'all gave him."

Ashley Mengwasser: From the StoryWalk?

Ronda Walker: From the StoryWalk.

Ashley Mengwasser: Aww.

Ronda Walker: I know.

Ronda Hightower: The hospital provided those and the ice cream.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, well, that's just a happy memory-

Ronda Hightower: Exactly.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... for him. That's the best part.

Ronda Walker: And it's permanent, okay, so we'll change it out every month. Pilot Club has offered to change it out. So you see, it's just building that community.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's all it is, and you have done it so well. You have probably another, would you say 8 to 10 initiatives that you do as part of your campaign? I read a whole list online. There's a bunch. Could you just each pick one other one that we haven't talked about that's not StoryWalker or the newborns efforts? I know that it's going to be hard to pick one, but pick another one that you really connect with and share it with our audience real quick.

Ronda Hightower: Can I share the Aspiring Leaders Project?

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Ronda Walker: That's where we need to go.

Ashley Mengwasser: Tell me about that.

Ronda Walker: This is an amazing idea for districts.

Ronda Hightower: It is an amazing idea. We do, like many districts, have a cohort of teachers or staff members who aspire to be a school leader one day. So they go through our Aspiring Leaders Program. Betsy Glisson is to be given all the credit for thinking of this idea. She was with us at the time and said, "Why don't we have our aspiring leaders develop a budget and do a community literacy project?"

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that.

Ronda Hightower: So, we have continued it now, and I text her every year and say, "You're not going to believe what the aspiring leaders have done-

Ronda Walker: Project.

Ronda Hightower: ... thank you for that idea." Yes. But just a couple, again, at the hospital, some of our aspiring leaders developed a QR code with digitally-read books. They put the QR code in the pediatric ward in each child's room so they can have access to books digitally while they're there recuperating in the hospital. We did have a couple build their own StoryWalk in one of our communities around their local park. We had some put a QR code in restaurants so while the children were waiting, instead of playing a game on the phone-

Ronda Walker: On the phone.

Ronda Hightower: ... they scan the QR code and read.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, that's great.

Ronda Hightower: It is great. A couple of our coaches really took an initiative. We have a Dudley Little League that is a huge event, hundreds and hundreds-

Ronda Walker: Oh, opening day is-

Ronda Hightower: ... of kids. Opening day is huge. They took it as a literacy opportunity, and they had parents do a survey on iPads and gave out books. I could go on and on with the many things that they have done. But they, year after year, continue to contribute to our community literacy and our vision of making literacy more visible and valued in Laurens.

Ashley Mengwasser: Aspiring Leaders, I like that. Do you have another project you want to tell us about, Walker?

Ronda Walker: Well, I think the project, it's hard, but I will say our Chamber of Commerce very quickly became involved and had heard about Quality Childcare. So we got together, we discussed it to see what we could do to assist those daycares in their journey to become quality rated, because we know where are these kids? Where are they spending their time? In these child care centers. We want the best in there-

Ashley Mengwasser: For them.

Ronda Walker: ... for them. We want those workers trained to know what to do with them. We want to provide them with materials that's needed. So we got what we needed as far as information like, "Yes, we need some bookshelves," or, "We need books on a topic." Whatever it was that they needed, he put it out to his members-

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that.

Ronda Walker: ... and had them bring in-

Ashley Mengwasser: Chamber members.

Ronda Walker: ... it was fabulous. So we took what they brought in and we were able, of course, through L4GA to add some to that. So we created different boxes for, based on the needs of the child care centers and delivered them. I think now we have nine out of the 12 of our child care centers quality rated and-

Ashley Mengwasser: Incredible.

Ronda Walker: Yeah. Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser:  You can knock down the other three. I feel confident with you two in charge. Literacy in Laurens, let's end with this, if we could. What traces, glimpses, nods from outside the school doors? Do you see that these initiatives are working? I know you've told all the ways that you've reached out and these partners have jumped on board. Are you hearing back from them as well? Do they ever come up with ideas? What's the experience?

Ronda Hightower: They definitely come up with ideas. Sometimes it's a simple nod, but a powerful one. Watching families go around the StoryWalk just Saturday before last, just reading together and the kids smiling and laughing, and that is a nod to this is good work.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Ronda Hightower: Fathers Among Men is an organization in our community. They have fathers and their developing fathers, and they are doing such a great job with really teaching these fathers the importance of literacy as well. So our downtown folks have jumped in.

Ronda Walker: Oh, yeah, market on Madison.

Ronda Hightower: When they have a large turnout for Jingle Mingle or Spooky Sweets or the St. Patrick's Parade in Dublin, those are all nods that you are in the midst of great people who want to do a great work.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that. Anything to add there, Walker?

Ronda Walker: Well, she said it well, and I think just getting pictures from the community or, "Oh, look, I came in this restaurant, and this child's reading a book," at one of the nooks that we had put out. Or I know we had a teacher, she texted me last week and she said, "Hey, I'm at dance. This lady just left here and she was having to wait on her child, and she had two children and they have a perfect place for a bookshelf. Do you think you could get us a bookshelf?"

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that. Reaching out to you to mobilize.

Ronda Walker: But that is her understanding it matters.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Ronda Walker: Right?

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, and so they see the change.

Ronda Walker: Yes. Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: One thing about Laurens is that there are both city and county school districts in Laurens County, right?

Ronda Walker: Yes. Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Is your work for one for all? How are you handling that?

Ronda Hightower: Absolutely for all.

Ashley Mengwasser: For all.

Ronda Hightower: Yes. From our sister school system with Dublin City School System to our system, and even our private school, Trinity Christian School that is in Laurens, we have worked together on so many different opportunities like Movie on the Lawn.

Ronda Walker: Movie on the lawn, which is the hospital puts on. We all come out, we give away things, talk about literacy, give parents information. I know Trinity Christian School, their Chick-fil-A leadership has really partnered with us and we were able to provide additional funds for those daycares as they were becoming quality rated.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wonderful. So all of these systems are reaching toward each other-

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: ...for Literacy in Laurens.

Ronda Hightower: Yes, and we even heard Ms. Varsity Pool in our last Literacy Task Force meeting say, "We don't care where they go to school. We said, "Absolutely not."

Ronda Walker: Absolutely not. That's right.

Ronda Hightower: "We don't care. We want to serve all children."

Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you both, Ronda Hightower, Ronda Walker for telling us about Literacy in Laurens. I'm so glad we met you today in a school community to record this, to talk about your literacy leadership work. You're both stellar. Hightower, I know you love the beach. You must know The Beach Boys.

Ronda Hightower: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay.

Ronda Hightower: Oh, no.

Ashley Mengwasser: I was singing-

Ronda Hightower: Oh, here it comes.

Ashley Mengwasser: ... help me, Ronda, on my drive to Athens today, and I knew after the end of this conversation that that's what you two will have done. You will have helped us, and you did. So thank you for helping us, Rondas.

Ronda Walker: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you.

Ronda Hightower: Thank you for the opportunity, yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: We appreciate you being here. To our literacy leaders listening, carve out some inspiring initiatives to make literacy a genuine community effort. Perhaps our Rondas have helped you identify areas of opportunity within your own county. As you take up the mantle, know that you're a great leader. I'm Ashley in Athens, and I'll be looking for a burger before driving home. Tune in next week where we're back in our studio for a brand-new Classroom Conversations. Bye now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.