Mebane Foundation and Hill Learning Center – A Treasured Partnership

By Jeanna Baxter White 

The Mebane Foundation has forged many meaningful relationships over the years, but our partnership with Hill Learning Center in Durham is one of the most treasured. 

During his decades as a leader in the textile industry, Allen Mebane recognized that education, particularly the ability to read, was the key to future success. Committed to making a difference, he established the Foundation in 1998 to support innovative educational endeavors.

Just as he had done in business, Mr. Mebane was determined to identify best practices and transformational literacy endeavors. He found a kindred spirit in Hill Learning Center in 2003, and a more than twenty-year partnership of innovation and excellence was born.  

Founded in 1977, Hill’s mission is to transform students with learning differences into confident, independent learners. When the organizations first met, Hill was pioneering differentiated, research-based reading instruction. 

Mr. Mebane believed deeply in what Hill was trying to achieve and was confident that together they could accomplish even more. “Over the past 20+ years, we have invested more than $4 million in joint ventures with Hill to develop curriculum, train teachers, and prepare children for life through literacy,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation.

Meeting the Needs of Young Readers

In 2002, the Foundation funded a twelve-month training program for 34 educators from Davie and Yadkin County Schools. Using a teaching methodology developed by the Hill Learning Center, the teachers spent many hours in workshops that focused on ways to best meet the needs of young children with reading disabilities. It was the excitement and success of these initial workshops that laid the groundwork for a much more extensive relationship and the eventual development of the Hill Reading Achievement Program I (HillRAP).

As a result, from 2004 to 2011, the Foundation invested $2 million in a partnership with Hill Learning Center for the development of the Hill Early Learning Program (HELP), HillRAP I, and HillRAP II reading intervention outreach models that can be used from Pre-K through 8th grade in the public school system. The majority of these funds were committed in Davie County, the home of the Mebane Foundation. The purpose was to provide all students in Davie County with a continuum of “best practice” strategies and a sound research-based curriculum for the development of reading success. 

Hill Early Literacy Program (HELP) 

Research indicates that children must learn specific skills during critical developmental years (ages 3-5) to become successful readers.  In 2004, the Mebane Foundation, in partnership with 11 childcare centers in Davie County, worked with the Hill Learning Center to develop a research-based, best practices early literacy curriculum known as Hill Early Literacy Program (HELP) for childcare providers serving 3 and 4-year-olds. 

Drawing upon Hill’s 26 years of expertise and success in working with students who learn differently, this groundbreaking project linked what was known about early childhood learning and literacy with what was known about children with learning disabilities to create a community model for improving children’s chances of success. 

Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP) I 

As part of the funding agreement, Hill was charged with designing a continuum to the HELP project that would address training and curriculum implementation of a similar reading methodology for K-3 in all six elementary schools in the Davie County system. HillRAP was based on the Orton-Gillingham approach, which focuses on teaching students the structure of language while incorporating precision teaching techniques, including charting and graphing student progress. Using Hill assessments, an individualized instructional plan is created for each student. Progress is continually monitored as students work toward mastery of skills. 


On the heels of a successful HELP and HillRAP I partnership with Hill Learning Center and Davie County Schools, the Mebane Foundation made an additional commitment of almost $1 million in 2007 for the design and implementation of a reading comprehension program (RAP II) for 6th-8th graders and for a continuation

of a teaching methodology similar to RAP I to be used in 4th and 5th grade.

HillRAP Goes Digital – Hill Learning System 

Over the years, the Foundation has stayed true to its commitment to making HillRAP accessible to ALL students, no matter where they go to school.  In 2015,  we embarked upon an exciting $1.9 million collaboration with The Hill Learning Center and the Mooresville Graded School District, a school system recognized both nationally and internationally for its student 1-to-1 technology initiative.

Together we partnered on a three-year project that combined their strengths to test and enhance the Hill Learning System (HLS), a digital version of HillRap. The new format used handheld devices rather than the traditional paper-based intervention, allowing teachers more flexibility in interacting with students in the 4-to-1 setting. 

Mebane Foundation Funds HillRAP Teacher Training in Yadkin County 

In 2017, the Foundation approved a $70,000 grant, and Unifi contributed an additional $30,000 to Yadkin County Schools to provide comprehensive HillRAP training to all 18 of the county’s K-6 EC teachers in delivering HillRAP with the technology-enabled HLS system piloted by Mooresville Graded School District. The grants also cover the cost of 90 iPads and additional training to certify two HillRAP mentors in the second year to build sustainability within the district. 

During 2019-2020, an additional $50,000 was granted to train 10 reading interventionists in HillRAP and to purchase 60 iPads. 

Teacher Aline Reavis works on HillRAP with student Chris White
Teacher Aline Reavis works on HillRAP with student Chris White.

HillRAP Tutoring Program 

Because HillRAP is so individualized and requires direct instruction, the program cannot be used for a whole group. Teachers and schools must intentionally schedule the time to implement the program, limiting the number of students able to participate.
In 2019, the Mebane Foundation decided to pilot a unique program utilizing retired teachers to provide HillRAP to students who don’t receive the powerful literacy intervention during the school day.  Davie County retired HillRAP instructors Kerry Blackwelder and Luwonna Oakes work with multiple groups of students each week.

Moving counter-clockwise: Luwonna Oakes, Davie HillRAP teacher; Honor Draughn, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Petra Murphy, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Amelia Battle, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Brynlee Logan, a third-grade student at Pinebrook Elementary School.

HillRAP Delivery Model Evolves to Increase Accessibility

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, and in-person learning came to a screeching halt, Hill Learning Center rose to the challenge and, in only three weeks, developed and released a version of HillRAP that could be delivered remotely as long as the teacher and students had iPads and an internet connection. By summer, the HillRAP team had transformed its training model, which had required at least two days of in-person training, into a fully virtual professional learning experience. Previously, these efforts would have required many months, if not years, of planning, budgeting, testing, and refinement. But the need was urgent and real, and the experience inspired Hill to think and act more boldly than ever before. 

Hill set an ambitious goal to dramatically expand HillRAP’s reach to serve 26,000 students and 2,100 educators annually by 2024-25. Doing so required significant additional investments in software development and improvements to online professional learning, data and analytics, and strategy, systems, and operations. They turned to supporters like the Mebane Foundation for financial assistance. Recognizing the value of the endeavor, the Foundation made a $25,000 donation to help fund the development, joining other philanthropic funders who collectively committed nearly $500,000 to this initiative.  

Photo Courtesy of Hill Learning Center
Students at KIPP Durham achieve reading mastery through HillRAP.

Supporting HillRAP Expansion – Partnering with Edgecombe County Schools & Hill Learning Center 

As a result of the learning loss experienced by many students due to school closures, remote learning, and inconsistent attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS)  recognized the need for intensive, gap-closing reading intervention was more urgent than ever.

It committed to expanding and strengthening the availability of HillRAP for its elementary and middle school students with persistent reading challenges through a three-year scale-up of HillRAP tutoring. The initiative culminated in 12 dedicated tutors reaching 240 students in 2023-2024. These tutors complement the ECPS teachers who are HillRAP-trained and deliver the program in their schools to an estimated 100 additional students as their schedules allow.

Hill and ECPS launched the project with $250,000 of the school system’s ESSER funds and $30,000 in previously committed funds from the Robert E. and Dorothy Z. Barnhill Family Fund, which has been supporting the deployment of HillRAP in ECPS since 2014. 

To help the school system secure the final $250,000 needed to fully execute the program, the Barnhill Family Foundation issued an all-or-nothing match challenge of 50% of the remaining revenue gap. The Mebane Foundation quickly promised $50,000 based on the project’s strong alignment with its mission and an enduring friendship between Founder Allen Mebane and Barnhill Family Foundation Founder, Robert E. Barnhill Jr. (Bob).

Photo Courtesy of Hill Learning Center
Zina Pittman, Hill master mentor and HillRAP tutor with Edgecombe County Schools leads students through a HillRAP session. 

A Transformational Partnership 

Hill Executive Director Beth Anderson is grateful for the transformational support that the Foundation has provided over the years. 

 “It is truly impossible to overstate the impact of Hill’s longstanding partnership with the Mebane Foundation,” shared Anderson. “In addition to giving the gift of reading to thousands of students with persistent reading difficulties across Davie, Edgecombe, and Yadkin counties, as well as Mooresville Graded School District, Mebane’s sustained investment in the development of the HillRAP curriculum and technology fueled our expansion to 1,000 teachers serving 10,000 students across 37 NC counties and 8 states last year. Without their leadership support, we would not have built a program that caught the attention of a national education company – 95 Percent Group – that acquired HillRAP so that they could take this unique and effective reading intervention to scale nationwide.” 

“As we shared in The Rise of HillRAP & the Realization of a Dream, like Allen Mebane, Hill had a dream to reach as many students as possible. Hill’s partnership with 95 Percent Group allows HillRAP (now 95 RAP) to flourish nationally while Hill focuses on working more locally with NC students and teachers, including sustained deep partnerships with the school districts in both Davie and Edgecombe counties, where more than 800 students continue to receive the RAP intervention today.”

Colbourne concluded, “Allen’s ultimate goal when he set out on this course with Hill more than 20 years ago was to be able to offer support to as many struggling readers and teachers as money and systems would allow. If he were alive now and looking back on how the relationship has thrived and the benchmarks that have been met, he’d be so proud. In fact, being the true entrepreneur that he was, he’d be even more proud of the fact that The Hill Learning Center eventually agreed for HillRAP to be bought, making possible the vision of offering a quality reading intervention model to ‘every child, no matter where he or she might be in the world.’”

Allen Mebane: Transforming Lives Through Education

By Jeanna Baxter White

Allen Mebane believed that “All people learn on a different timeline. But if you create the right tool, everyone can learn at their own pace, and after a period of time, end up at the same destination.”

That conviction would guide his career and future philanthropic ventures. 

In 1969, while CEO of Universal Textured Yarns, Mr. Mebane established the Mebane Industrial School, an innovative program that paid people to attend classes and then guaranteed them a job at Universal. He believed that businessmen, as well as industry, had an obligation to their communities, and he knew that education and training would transform people’s lives by providing them with the skills and confidence needed to obtain a job that would allow them to support themselves and their families.  

Bolstered by the success of the Mebane Industrial School and convinced that the quality of a nation’s future depends on the education of its young people, he established the Mebane Foundation in 1998 to support innovative educational endeavors.

After retiring from Unifi in 2000, Mr. Mebane focused his full attention on ensuring that the Foundation he had started began helping children of all backgrounds reach their full potential through innovative, transformational school programs. From the start, the Foundation has done everything in its power to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to receive a top-tier education that will throw doors wide open to extraordinary career opportunities and more fulfilling, successful lives.

To celebrate our 25th anniversary, we will return to the beginning to reminisce the amazing programs that have shaped our history.  There have been a multitude of successes and a few failures, but each experience has taught us a valuable lesson as we stay true to our mission of preparing children for life through literacy.

Since research consistently shows that children who are reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade are vastly more likely to succeed in school, the Mebane Foundation’s earliest efforts focused on our youngest learners.  

Touching the Lives of Children 

Touching the Lives of Children was the first early education program that the Foundation funded. In 2000, it gave an initial grant of $105,135 to be used as leverage for challenge grants from the N.C. Partnership for Children and the Cannon Foundation to support WINGS, a cognitive and language development curriculum developed for preschool children ages 3-6 years.

The well-documented theory behind the program suggested that reaching students at an early age,  identifying their needs, and then immersing them in a structured reading program would result in more successful readers by the time they reached third grade. WINGS was implemented in childcare centers, preschools, and schools serving under-resourced communities in 23 counties across North Carolina. 

By measuring students’ abilities before and after program participation, program evaluators calculated that, on average, children’s intellectual age increased dramatically when compared to the time of program participation. 

In 2002, the Foundation approved a second request for $146,500 to help equip 20 computer-based sites within the different facilities to enable caretakers to enhance the original WINGS curriculum using hardware and software produced specifically for the program.  With the Foundation’s interest in technology in the classroom, this was a good match. 

While the program yielded positive results for the children and daycare teachers, the program’s reliance on securing government program funding eventually forced the Foundation to back away from the Touching the Lives of Children initiative. The Foundation took away valuable information from the program, which was probably the genesis of future technology projects with the Davie County School system. 

Helen C. Gantt Child Development Center

In 2002, the Mebane Foundation made its initial funding commitment to a Davie County daycare center when it granted $213,875 to the Helen C. Gantt Child Development Center. With the funding came a partnership that would enable the Foundation to gain valuable future learning. Initially, this was a three-star rated childcare center; however, it became a five-star facility within two years of joining the program. Having this valuable project under one roof in Davie County enabled the Foundation to observe in a contained environment subsequent early childhood reading programs it would support. The mission of the center was to offer the highest quality care to Davie County children and, at the same time, stand out from its competitors. 

Realizing the importance of targeting children during the early developmental years, the center hired quality staff, implemented curriculums, and worked toward parent education and awareness in order to focus on the individual development of each child. This environment also offered a tremendous learning opportunity as a teaching laboratory for early childhood education students at the high school and college levels. In fact, the Gantt Center was one of the initial learning environments in which the Foundation offered its Hill Early Learning Program (HELP), a comprehensive early literacy and reading program developed with the Hill Learning Center in Durham, and was invaluable for future learning and training opportunities for teachers using the HELP methodology.

The Foundation invested almost $900,000 in the center over a four-year period. While the Helen C. Gantt Child Development Center was a success as an educational outlet for early childhood development, it was not independently fiscally sustainable and closed after the Foundation discontinued its lead funding in 2006. However, what the Foundation learned from the experience formed the ongoing inspiring model of success being used in 11 childcare centers in Davie County, including the preschool programs at each of the six elementary schools. 

Our next article will explore the Mebane Challenge, a three-year $2.25 million initiative that added the best educational technology to classrooms in every school across Davie County and Pre-K classrooms to five of the six elementary schools.