Today, one in four kids in the U.S. will grow up illiterate, and children who can’t read at grade level in the 4th grade are 400 percent more likely to drop out of high school. Data from the National Assessment of Education Progress show that only 16% of black high school seniors and 23% of Hispanic high school seniors are reading at a proficient level. Thus, the need to reinforce better reading habits at an early age is beyond urgent.
On May 28, actor LeVar Burton sent social media and the web into a frenzy when news broke that he had launched a Kickstarter campaign to help revive the once popular kids learning show, “Reading Rainbow.” In just 24 hours, Burton and his “Reading Rainbow” team had exceeded their goal of raising $1 million by July 2 and as of today, on day three of the campaign, the site calculates that nearly $3 million have been raised.
“This has been quite a journey for me. First, securing the rights to the brand and being in a position to determine the destiny of the brand is something I have wanted to do for a long time,” Burton tells BlackEnterprise.com.
We had the pleasure to chat in detail with the former “Roots” star to get his reaction to the overwhelming support of the campaign and his long-term goals for the renewal of a learning program that once had every kid glued to their TV.
BlackEnterprise.com: Were you surprised by how much money you raised in just 24 hours?
Yes! We were pretty confident that we could meet our goal in the 35 days of the campaign, but we have all been just floored, overwhelmed and rocked by the manner in which this has happened. First of all, getting to $1 million in 11 hours was really unexpected and so exciting. People reported that they were watching the Kickstarter page and watching the amount grow. They were watching it like it was television because it kept changing and the number kept growing and people were glued to their screen. We were reading the comments all day and people were saying they couldn’t stop watching it because it’s amazing. And to really see that people are donating because they feel like this is a way to give back to something that gave to them, that’s huge. We are pretty certain that we’re going to break the record for the number of pledges in a campaign, which is around 90,000. I think we’re over 66,000 at this point and we’re only on day three of the campaign.
Have you set a new fundraising goal now that you’ve exceeded the initial goal?
This morning we announced that our stretch goal is twice as high as what we were able to achieve yesterday. Yesterday, we hit $2.5 million and our stretch goal is now $5 million. If we can go twice as high that would be amazing because the first million enabled us to do many things, starting with giving the content that’s on the app to the web where there’s more access. Thirty percent of the market has access to a tablet like an iPad or Kindle Fire and those are the only two devices that we’re on right now. With the first million we are able to get to more platforms like mobile, but the main thrust of the first million is to design a product specifically for classrooms because teachers loved the Reading Rainbow brand. They used the television show in their classrooms and they’re using the app in classrooms as well, which means they’re paying for it themselves because it’s a consumer product. That first million gives us the opportunity to offer the product to schools for free in 1,500 classrooms.
The new $5 million goal will get us on Android and mobile. In addition to set top boxes, Roku box, Xbox and more. We’re talking universal access, and we’ll be able give [Reading Rainbow] away to 7,500 classrooms and that’s helping a lot of kids.
Now is there a particular reason why you decided not to bring it back to television and go digital instead?
It’s very simple. Television is only one screen that today’s children are using. You want to reach kids, then you’ve got to reach them with today’s technology. That’s what we did with TV back in the ’80s and ’90s. The reason “Reading Rainbow” was so successful on the television is because we adopted the idea that if kids aren’t reading enough, then let’s go to where they are reading and let’s promote books and it worked. Now I’m not saying we won’t entertain some sort of way to create that experience again. Maybe we will do a web-series. I don’t know. However, what I do know is that the money we’re raising gives us the space, grace, and opportunity to really have a “the sky is the limit” optimistic attitude about what we can accomplish here.
What is your long-term goal of “Reading Rainbow” because I’m sure you will exceed $5 million and have the financial backing to do anything?
You know what will be amazing? A permanent endowment to give “Reading Rainbow” away and to continue to grow that library of books and videos, and to have that enriching material available for succeeding generations and to be able to give it away for free to as many schools as we can.