From left: Wendy Martin, a reading specialist for Henrico County Schools, coaches Literacy Lab reading tutors Mycah Richardson and Caitlin Tolson. (Photo by Bonnie Newman Davis)
I started reading before first grade, basically to keep up with my sister, who was a year ahead of me in school. Our elementary school reading assignments were supplemented by trips to the local libraries (and frowns from our mother when she received notices about our overdue books). I loved following the antics of Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby” character and imagined my own future when reading about famous people in Ebony and Life magazines.
Rarely, if ever, did I think about classmates, friends or family members who might have struggled with reading, because, well, didn’t everyone know how to read?
A 2013 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics assessed the skills of U.S. adults ages 16 to 65. Results showed that 52 percent of respondents had limited ability to engage with text, work with numbers and solve problems in digital environments.
The personal and societal effects of poor reading skills include the inability to understand essential information (on contracts, maps, prescriptions), chronic unemployment, lower income and quality of life, low self-esteem, and crime.
In Virginia, 83 percent of economically disadvantaged children fail to reach a basic level of reading proficiency, according to The Literacy Lab, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., working to close the literacy achievement gap in low-income communities. AmeriCorps supports Literacy Lab programs by providing funds to hire reading tutors.
Both organizations believe that strong readers reap strong futures. Their goal is for all Virginia children to become proficient readers by the third grade.
Literacy Lab representatives arrived in Richmond in late August to begin working with kindergarten to third-grade students in 18 schools in Richmond, Henrico County and Petersburg.
Gathered at WestRock’s Fifth Street offices, 36 paid literacy tutors went through an intense weeklong training session to reduce reading disparities in struggling schools and students.
Tutors, most of whom have college degrees, learned how to provide daily one-on-one, 20-minute intervention sessions with students. A staff person or “internal coach” at each school also attended the training, and will provide support to tutors throughout the year. Targeted reading interventions include phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency.
Students eligible for services must have scored below target on assessments, need reading skill practice, be in special education or require English language services. The students’ progress is monitored weekly, and assessments are conducted three times a year.
Ashley Johnson and Tom Dillon are co-executive directors of The Literacy Lab, which was founded in 2009 in response to student reading challenges that Johnson saw in her classroom as a high school special education teacher in Washington, D.C. The Literacy Lab began by tutoring children after school in Washington and Alexandria.
Today, the Literacy Lab’s partnership with AmeriCorps enables it to use the Minnesota Reading Corps curriculum, which is considered to be a national model for improved reading among students of color, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, and English language learners. The curriculum is being used by Literacy Lab tutors in the 18 Richmond, Henrico and Petersburg schools.
A 2014 University of Chicago-based research study found that elementary students using the Minnesota reading curriculum achieved “significantly higher literacy levels than students without such tutors.” The study also found that the average kindergarten student who had been tutored performed twice as well as students who had not, and first-grade students who had been tutored performed 11 percent better than untutored students.
Dillon expects similar results for Richmond-area students who are in the program.
“Of the Virginia students The Literacy Lab served last school year, 67 percent were closing their literacy gap with peers on pace to attend a four-year college, and 42 percent closed their gap entirely and graduated from the program,” says Dillon. “The Literacy Lab expects similar outcomes for its students in the Richmond area.”
Seated at a table covered with large three-ring binders, pens, markers, dry erasers and timers, literacy tutors Pamela Floyd, Mycah Richardson and Caitlin Tolson say they look forward to working with students this fall.
Floyd, a 2013 Virginia Commonwealth University graduate, says she quit her job at an insurance agency last spring with no firm plans. Days later she saw she an ad for the tutoring program. She applied in April and was recently hired. Because her own son has struggled with reading, Floyd is excited to help other children.
Caitlin Tolson’s penchant for social justice issues and desire “to make my community stronger” led her to become a tutor. “I want to watch the children’s confidence grow,” says the 2016 VCU graduate.
Mycah Richardson? Well, he’s a lot like me. Privileged with the ability to comprehend, discern and imagine — all because he can read.
“I had no idea the literacy rates were so low [among low-income children],” says Richardson, a 2015 graduate of Virginia State University who attended well-regarded secondary schools in Richmond.
“Because I went to Bellevue Elementary, Binford Middle and Community High School, I really haven’t dealt with someone struggling to read,” says Richardson, a graphic artist and designer.
“This will be a challenge, but I believe the Literacy Lab will equip us to get through it.”