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Alabama Railroad Company Turning The Tide in Literacy and High School Graduation

Most folks know of Progress Rail as an Alabama company owned by Caterpillar that’s the world’s largest builder of diesel-electric locomotives. What many may not know, is some of the ways their employees are engaging their local community to make it a better place to live, work, and raise families.

One example is Christmas for Kids, a program Progress Rail launched in 1989 that provides clothes, toys, and necessities for low-income children each year. The company also makes donations to Big Oak Ranch, a Springville, Alabama Christian camp that gives at-risk kids a better chance at a healthy life. In the past six years, Progress Rail has provided over $1.25 million through these two programs, touching the lives of more than 500 children a year in the Marshall County.

A newer Progress Rail initiative that’s making a tremendous difference, however, is a two-pronged mentoring effort that just got its start in 2015. Progress Rail’s President and CEO Billy Ainsworth wanted to do more to effect long-term change in at-risk kids year-round, so he sought input from Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who was Marshall County’s District Attorney at the time. At this lunch, Ainsworth asked Marshall what Progress Rail could do to make the biggest difference in Marshall County. From the perspective of a prosecutor who sees young people after they’ve already made poor decisions, Marshall said the biggest challenge facing the county, and probably the state, is high school dropouts. To meaningfully impact graduation rates, Marshall said this problem must be addressed at two levels: heading off younger children who are struggling and helping older kids find a healthier path. Inspired by their meeting, Ainsworth made up his mind to create a program that accomplished these goals. Yellowhammer asked Attorney General Marshall about that meeting:

 Billy Ainsworth and I met for lunch and discussed ways that Progress Rail could impact the issues faced by Marshall County.  My recommendation was to find opportunities to become engaged with at-risk youth and ensure that our children graduated from high school.  Through extensive research, careful planning, and committed Progress Rail employees, Mr. Ainsworth initiated Project Literacy and Project Graduation.  With the assistance of Representative Will Ainsworth and the Marshall County School System, Progress Rail employees have aided students in dramatically raising reading levels and mentoring young people to enhance their opportunities to graduate from high school.  This outstanding example of a corporation who cared to give back to the community is a shining example of how corporate/government partnership that can reshape communities and change lives for years to come.  I was pleased to be a small part of the what has been a highly successful effort.

After the meeting with Steve Marshall, Progress Rail enlisted the assistance of State Representative Will Ainsworth, who joined company leaders in researching the root causes of high school drop-outs. As Attorney General Marshall had indicated, this team learned that early literacy is a key predictor of whether or not a child will graduate from high school. They also learned that once kids drop out, their chances of a healthy life dramatically decrease. Specifically, they learned:

  • • Students who do not read on a 3rdgrade level by the time they are in 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. (dosomething.org)
  • • Some 75% of crimes are committed by high school dropouts
  • • Each high school dropout costs the tax payers approximately $292,000

The group concluded that they needed exactly the kind of two-pronged approach Attorney General Marshall recommended: one that reaches kids at early age as a prevention measure and one that engages older kids who are already at risk. To that end, they brought together community leaders, local public officials, and educators from each of the county’s five school districts. The result was the formation of two separate initiatives made up of private citizens, corporations, and students, as well as educators and public officials:

Project Literacy that boosts literacy in Marshall County’s elementary school students through volunteer reading programs

Project Graduation that engages at-risk high school students through mentoring programs that encourage them to graduate from high school

To kick things off, Progress Rail launched the Project Literacy pilot program in 2016. Each week during the year, over 20 volunteers from Progress Rail read to 45 students from Asbury Elementary School that teachers prepped with specific lessons to maximize the reading sessions. The results were astounding. In just four months:

  • • 37% of students improved an entire grade level in reading proficiency
  • • 48% improved close to an entire grade level on whole
  • • The remaining 15% showed substantial progress

In 2017, the program expanded to more than 65 volunteers from five local organizations and 130 students at five different schools. Progress Rail’s goal is to continue growing the program each year by engaging other companies and civic groups to reach additional students throughout the county.

The second initiative—Project Graduation—was launched in 2017 with 20 Progress Rail employees who each mentored one student from Brindlee Mountain High School.  Each month. The students in Project Graduation participate in:

  • • One-on-one mentoring sessions
  • • Tours of various facilities to learn about what opportunities exist for students who graduate high school
  • • Progress Rail’s Leadership Development program where they studied the 7 Habits for Highly Effective Teens.

For the 2017-2018 school year, Progress Rail plans to expand this program countywide and encourage other local organizations to participate. The goal is to create a vision with at-risk students that shows them what their future can be if they earn a high school diploma. As popular author J.D. Vance notes, kids often fail to achieve success and stability simply because they have no vision and no hope, as was his case before he escaped a dysfunctional rust-belt home to join the Marine Corps and ultimately defied all odds by graduating from Yale Law School. Project Graduation gives kids the kind of vision and hopes Vance says they need to overcome their obstacles, and it’s making a real, tangible difference in Marshall County, Alabama.

Another key element of Project Graduation, however, is understanding that not all kids want or need to attend college. As TV personality Mike Rowe so effectively shows through his Mike Rowe Works Foundation, many kids can create a stable life by becoming high-wage skilled workers without earning a college degree. Moreover, our economy depends finding American workers to fill these skilled-labor jobs. From welders to heavy machinery operators and plumbers to cabinet builders, a tremendous sector of our economy is desperate to find young people who will earn their high school diploma, find out what they’re great at and what they enjoy doing, go to a trade school to obtain these skills, and move into the work force. The jobs are there for their taking, and Project Graduation aims to help kids commit to a path that leads them to these careers.

State Representative Will Ainsworth—CEO of Dream Ranch and son of Progress Rail’s Billy Ainsworth—spoke to Yellowhammer regarding his role in these programs.

I was honored to be a part of envisioning this initiative with my father and Attorney General Marshall, and now that it’s creating tangible benefits for the youth of Marshall County, my hope is that will serve as a model for public-private partnerships across Alabama.

Billy Ainsworth concurred:

We are very proud of our employees and the students who have participated in both Project Literacy and Project Graduation. Each of us has had people that influence our decisions at key points in our life, and it is our hope that we can assist in arming these students with the tools they need to be successful. This is a great example of industry partnering with not only educators but also the state government, to provide a positive impact on the youth in our community. I believe this is a model that can be implemented across the state to supplement what our partners in education are doing and remove some of the burdens from the state.

Below are videos of Project Literacy and Project Graduation.


Editor’s Note: Headquartered in Albertville Alabama, with over 7,000 employees at over 150 locations around the world, Progress Rail, a Caterpillar company, is one of the largest integrated and diversified suppliers of railroad and transit system products and services worldwide.  Additionally, Progress Rail is the world’s largest builder of diesel-electric locomotives for all commercial railroad applications including freight, intercity passenger, commuter, switching, industrial and mining.