Education

Munro Richardson, who knows reading’s power, aims to boost Charlotte’s literacy

Munro Richardson is the executive director of Read Charlotte. “It doesn’t matter what ZIP code you were born in. That shouldn’t determine whether you can read by the time you’re in third grade,” Richardson said.
Munro Richardson is the executive director of Read Charlotte. “It doesn’t matter what ZIP code you were born in. That shouldn’t determine whether you can read by the time you’re in third grade,” Richardson said. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

A child born today in Charlotte will be sitting down for his or her first national reading test in 2025. By then, Munro Richardson hopes he’ll have been able to change things here.

Richardson is nearly four months into his job as executive director of Read Charlotte, a new community initiative that aims to have 80 percent of the city’s fourth-graders reading proficiently over the next decade.

It’s a tall task in a city where today only 40 percent of children are reading at grade-level by then. “There are kids who show up in kindergarten who have no idea how to hold a book,” Richardson said.

But Richardson, 44, said he believes Charlotte is at a unique period in its history where there’s enough momentum behind the issue to make a difference. His supporters say Richardson has the brainpower and the right combination of experiences to make it happen.

“He’s very numbers-driven, but he doesn’t stop there,” said Johanna Anderson, executive director of the Belk Foundation, one of Read Charlotte’s backers. “He’s very much interested in what drives the numbers.”

Read Charlotte doesn’t intend to run programs itself. Instead, the group will use use $5.5 million raised from the city’s major corporations and foundations to link reading efforts and come up with best practices to build literacy skills from when a child’s born through third grade.

The research on literacy has already been done, Richardson says. And while he doesn’t think he can solve related issues of poverty and limited opportunity over the 10 years of the program, achieving reading proficiency is doable.

“It doesn’t matter what ZIP code you were born in. That shouldn’t determine whether you can read by the time you’re in third grade,” Richardson said. “I’m not smart enough to deal with a lot of the other issues, but I do think we can be smart enough as a community to figure out, ‘How do we get increasingly more kids able to read?’”

‘Murder Capital’

Google the ZIP code where Richardson grew up – 64130 – and look at the first result that comes up.

An investigative series from the Kansas City Star in 2009 declared the eight-square-mile area the “Murder Factory” because of its disproportionate impact on the city’s violent crime rates. Though it accounted for 6 percent of Kansas City’s population, residents from the ZIP code accounted for 20 percent of its people in prison for murder or voluntary manslaughter.

Growing up there in the 1980s, Richardson said he quickly learned how to distinguish between types of gunfire.

Richardson and his three younger siblings, the children of “blue-collar” parents, all went on to successful lives. His sister has a master’s of social work degree, and his brother Logan is a professional jazz musician in New York City.

But he’s also seen the impact of violence and poverty in a community. A friend of his ended up witnessing his mother killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. The friend found who was responsible, killed him and is now doing life in prison, Richardson said.

“At some point, I became obsessed with, ‘Why do some people make it and other people don’t?’” Richardson said.

By seventh or eighth grade, Richardson said he’d figured out that education was his ticket to success. He won a scholarship to a summer science camp, and the next year earned a ticket to Washington, D.C., after winning the school science fair.

Later, he decided he wanted to visit China. He studied Chinese at the University of Kansas and soon was standing atop the Great Wall. He went to graduate school at Harvard, earned a Rhodes Scholarship and then a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.

He worked on Capitol Hill for former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and later for then-Sen. Joe Biden on foreign relations and African affairs. Then he got it into his head that he wanted to run for office himself.

He and his wife, Teresa, moved back to Kansas City, where they had met in high school. Richardson went to work for the Greater Kansas City Foundation and began raising money for a state House bid. Then he found out they were expecting a second child.

“I just believe politics is a jealous mistress. She always wants more,” Richardson said. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my young family.”

He returned the campaign donations and began to settle into life working for foundations. He moved over to the Kauffman Foundation, which supports education and entrepreneurship, where Richardson became vice president of education.

In his last few years before coming to Charlotte, he founded a series of startup companies in the education space. One was a communication app for college students. Another was a teacher recruiting tool.

Family ties to Charlotte

Though Richardson is a newcomer to Charlotte, his family has deep roots to the region.

His great-great-grandfather, William Henry Levander Wolfe, was born into slavery on a plantation in Mecklenburg County. He eventually attended Biddle University, which later became Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

One of Wolfe’s earliest memories, still passed down through the generations, is of the plantation owner’s daughter being beaten for secretly teaching slaves to read.

Richardson said he can see how laws on literacy have affected his family across five generations. His great-great-grandfather in Charlotte wasn’t able to learn to read under the law. In 2015, Richardson was brought to Charlotte after North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law put an emphasis on third-grade reading.

“In many ways, I feel like I’m coming home,” he said. “I feel like I have the advantage of new eyes and new years but also a deep appreciation for history.”

Simple rules

Richardson says he believes Charlotte now has a unique window of time in which to make a dent in the literacy problem. And he firmly believes that the issue is not with the children. It’s an adult problem, he says, and not just parents – but teachers, neighbors, child care workers and the rest of the community.

The trick will be to come up with easily accessible tips and tools for parents who are looking for information on how to help their children learn to read. He also plans to dig through data to find best practices in the schoolhouse that can work.

“We have to have models that don’t require a genius running it and Mother Teresa in every classroom,” Richardson said. “It’s got to be something that average people can do.”

He also often describes himself as an “air traffic controller” who will coordinate all the work already being done and directing into the most efficient direction.

The Read Charlotte board that hired him said they were impressed with his background of sticking with a problem until it was solved, said Weston Andress, western North Carolina president for PNC Bank and a member of the board. So far, they say, he’s shown that he’ll do that here, too.

“He is thinking about early language and literacy at least 16 hours a day,” Anderson of the Belk Foundation said. “And he’s probably dreaming about it a little bit, too.”

Meet Munro Richardson

Age: 44

Title: Executive director, Read Charlotte

Education: Undergraduate degree in Chinese, University of Kansas; master’s in East Asian Studies, Harvard University; master’s in international relations, University of Oxford; Ph.D. in politics, University of Illinois

Family: Wife, Teresa. Daughters, ages 16, 15 and 10

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