A Passion for Literacy

For Liza McFadden ‘83, helping kids learn to read is the greatest gift
Photo of alumna Liza McFadden Class of 1983

The same level of detail (in a classroom assignment) goes into writing a bill. You have to think about, ‘How does that line connect to this line, and then to that line.’ It’s the same process.

Liza McFadden ‘83 recalls a particularly challenging assignment during her professional writing studies at Fitchburg State. Using words and no diagrams, students had to explain in precise detail how to draw a complex shape.

“It was definitely one of the hardest courses I had,” she said. “That level of definition, and the ability to bring detail to your writing, has helped me in so many ways.”

It’s a skill McFadden has used in pursuit of her great passion to promote literacy, a drive that has allowed her to make a positive impact on the lives of children and adults at the local, state and national level.

McFadden is currently president of Liza and Company, where she advises philanthropists and executives, and her record of service includes appointments as president and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, an organization that believes education is a civil right, no matter one’s age. She was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate to serve on the National Institute for Literacy Board. She is also a board member of the publicly traded education technology company K12 Inc., which drives innovation and advances the quality of education by delivering state-of-the-art, digital learning platforms and technology to students and school districts across the globe. 

“I love to advocate on behalf of issues,” said McFadden, for whom environmentalism is also a passion. 

While she has called Florida home for several years, McFadden grew up off Ross Street, a stone’s throw from the Fitchburg State campus. She recalls sledding down the steep slope of Ross Street during the winter, and attended the McKay Campus School. 

McFadden’s environmental concerns were also forged in Fitchburg, recalling the pollution in the Nashua River by paper plants. But activists and policymakers were able to rescue the river, which gives McFadden hope. “We can turn it around,” she said.

Her career path wasn’t always clear to her, but her love of reading was. “I didn’t know exactly what career I was going to go into, other than that I was bibliophile,” she said. “I loved reading and writing. After graduating, I worked for a year teaching and working at a restaurant on the weekends, where I made more money.”

She left the sledding on Ross Street behind her and pursued her master’s degree at Florida State University, which led to a position with the Florida Department of Education scoring essays on standardized tests. “That got my foot in the door,” she said. “I rose through the ranks and did a lot of work in adult education, which I have a lot of passion about.”

When a former boss was elected to serve in Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration, McFadden was invited to work on a variety of education policy matters. Projects there included recruiting 200,000 adults to be mentors for children who were struggling with reading.

With the Barbara Bush Foundation, McFadden’s launched a program for teenagers to be literacy mentors to elementary school pupils, and parents who may themselves have struggled with English or literacy were encouraged to listen to their children read at least three times a week to boost their own skills. 

McFadden, mother to two grown children, sees a direct line from the challenging Fitchburg State assignment to the work she has done to support life-changing literacy efforts. “The same level of detail goes into writing a bill,” she said. “You have to think about, ‘How does that line connect to this line, and then to that line.’ It’s the same process."

This story first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Contact, the university's alumni magazine.