Story by Julia Baca. Photos courtesy of Readers 2 Leaders.
After eight years as an assistant principal, President & CEO of Readers 2 Leaders, Norma Nelson was looking for a change. She wanted to stay in education but was ready to try something new. After meeting Ted Schweinfurth, she knew she had to get involved in Readers 2 Leaders. Ted and Stephanie Schweinfurth founded Readers 2 Leaders nearly ten years ago to mentor underserved elementary-age children struggling with literacy in their West Dallas community. “A lot of literacy skills are built up prior to fourth grade, so it’s really difficult to catch up after that,” shared Norma. Children who fall behind are four times less likely to graduate high school and that number is only amplified for low-income students. Readers 2 Leaders takes a holistic approach when combating literacy problems. They operate a variety of programs designed to help kids read on grade level. At the heart of Readers 2 Leaders are its tutoring programs.
Readers 2 Leaders provides small group tutoring and one-on-one reading tutoring. Small group tutoring is carried out by trained instructors who offer 120 minutes of supplemental instruction during school and through the “Team Read” after-school program. Instructors ensure that students improve their literacy skills through phonics review, comprehension instruction, and guided reading. Another core component of the tutoring process is the “Reading Buddies” program that pairs more than 250 volunteers with children for one-on-one reading practice. Once a week volunteers work with children individually to help them improve their reading skills and increase their confidence in learning. Even when kids aren’t in school, they can still progress through the Readers 2 Leaders annual summer camp. Team Read instructors provide instruction, learning activities, and field trips to mitigate the dreaded “summer slide.” 96 percent of summer camp students did not experience summer slide and were on reading level for the following school year.
What really makes the programs so effective is participation from the kids and their families. “In order for it to really work, the kids have to be present,” says Norma. “Our programs have over 90 percent attendance and 97 percent progressed at a normal or accelerated rate.” Norma mentioned one woman who stopped at nothing to get her kids the reading help they needed. While her husband was out of the country this woman was caring for her four children on her own. She didn’t have a car, so she would walk her four kids to the Readers 2 Leaders programs, sometimes in hundred-degree heat. “We have parents in the community who really believe in the program and make sacrifices for their children’s education,” says Norma. That mom also works hard to send her kids to a nearby community school that charges tuition. “All her children have met or exceeded their grade level reading goals,” shared Norma.
Despite all these successes, COVID-19 has made hands-on learning and face-to-face tutoring nearly impossible. Volunteers can no longer read to kids and schools are no longer in session, making it difficult for children to continue their progress. Readers 2 Leaders is committed to giving kids and parents the resources they need during the pandemic, so they have modified their services and started an online program called Read, Learn, Go! This virtual learning program is a two-hour educational show hosted by Readers 2 Leaders, instructors. Each episode features reading instruction and content in core subjects. In effort to make the digital content as accessible as possible, Readers 2 Leaders streams Read, Learn Go! live on Facebook Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays as well as posts recordings of each episode on their website, Facebook, and YouTube. Going digital isn’t easy, but Facebook watch parties and communicating through comments and pictures helps Readers 2 Leaders staff and volunteers interact with parents and children. In addition to producing their own content, Readers 2 Leaders compiled a resource page with free access codes to online reading programs, leveled books, and a variety of online learning curriculum. Readers 2 Leaders is also exploring online tutoring in case they are unable to host their annual summer camp. “We’re really trying to connect with people on a platform that works for them,” says Norma.
Not only during the pandemic, but throughout the year, Readers 2 Leaders depends on support from the community. The organization has a wide volunteer base and depends on donations to pay its instructors. Norma emphasized, “we know that now is not the time to be a volunteer, but we encourage people to go online and learn about our volunteer opportunities because after all this is over, the kids are going to be farther behind.” Norma mentioned that people can also share the Readers 2 Leaders digital content, “Read, Learn, Go! is for anyone in the world.”
Readers 2 Leaders serves about 600 kids on a yearly basis. If you’d like to support Readers 2 Leaders by making a donation, signing up to volunteer, or sharing their digital content, visit readers2leaders.org.