Raising a Reader program launched in March 2019 in DeKalb, looks to expand to Clayton in low child well-being zones

By Bradley Roberts

Reading is our foundation for learning.

Reading is a crucial academic skill and reading proficiently by the end of third grade can make or break a child’s educational development — beyond third grade, children stop learning to read and instead begin reading to learn.

An inability to learn affects other math and science skills, as well, and third-grade reading proficiency can be linked to high school dropout rates. We know that education begins with reading, yet only 36 percent of fourth-grade students in the United States are proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

In order for our children to reach their full potential, they must learn to read by third grade, which is why United Way of Greater Atlanta funds programs like Raising a Reader. The work in Greater Atlanta is supported by the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation.

United Way’s Raising a Reader program launched in March at a school in DeKalb County to help children develop and practice these essential literacy habits. The programs encourage children and their families to get involved with their child’s academic achievement.

“Raising a Reader is designed to increase brain development through exposure to literacy,” said Kiisha Smith, United Way’s Raising a Reading project coordinator. “They want to encourage family engagement whether that be a parent reading to a child or a child reading to them.”

They do this by packing books for students in bags that are distributed to classes for them to take home and read along with their parents. The children return the finished books later in the week, and the cycle continues as classmates exchange bags with the other students.

“The hope is that a child will be exposed to 100 books by the end of the school year,” Smith said. “We want to provide multicultural books to expose children to diverse cultures.”

Smith said the program expanded after the spring semester to a summer reading partnership with DeKalb Public Library. But the library was in the midst of renovations when the program kicked off. So, Smith said DeKalb Library shuttled books in a “mobile library” to an apartment complex in Stone Mountain for the Raising a Reader summer program.

“We partnered with another nonprofit called Refugee Village,” Smith says. “[Founder and Coordinator Ana Sousa] was running a program… at the apartment complex, and they allowed us to use a vacant apartment over the rental office.
“The librarians would come out and read to the children, and then they would have arts and crafts that went along with the book.”

Refugee Village started about two and a half years ago and originally began serving families who were formerly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sousa says.

“Our No. 1 pillar is literacy — not just reading, but life skills,” Sousa said. “That’s another component children are getting out of the environment.”

She was hired at first to be a site supervisor, and she began inviting friends in to lead classes in art, music and literacy. Sousa said the apartment complex’s needs were significant, though.

“We started with literacy, teaching moms who had never been to school,” said Sousa, a former English as a Second Language teacher. “Then we got food and clothing and books, and we did a lot to distribute those things to support the community.”

Sousa said Smith reached out to her with this mobile library program and about how they could use the apartment space to expand the program into the summer. It was a “perfect marriage” between the two, Smith said.

Raising a Reader serves children 0-8 years of age, Smith says, and for school-aged children, it serves pre-k through second grade. The childhood literacy program aligns directly with United Way of Greater Atlanta’s focus on improving the reading skills and well-being of children in Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties.

United Way of Greater Atlanta saw two years ago after its strategic planning meeting that the zip code a child lived in too often determined the fate of that child. United Way saw that, statistically, because of what zip code a child was born into, he or she was handed a disadvantage beyond their control. Through a set of 14 measures, United Way calculated at the time a child well-being score of 58.9.

On May 9, officials announced the score had improved in two years to 61.8. That equates to a change in the lives of more than 82,000 children in the region living in low or very low child well-being.

The Raising a Reader focus will shift toward areas that have lower child well-being scores and need to improve reading proficiency.

“Right now, we’re focused on the index wherever the red [low to very low child well-being] areas are,” Smith said. “We’re at Stone Mill Elementary in DeKalb, and then we are going to pick up another school in Clayton.”

Smith said the program is designed to become self-sustaining, and then allow her to expand to other schools so she can train more teachers involved in the program.

“It’s designed to train parents, and they train their peers, and we’re in the process of doing that,” Smith says.

The mobile library program this summer was extremely well received from the apartment complex’s residents, Sousa said. She said the program was a great extension from what she was teaching her foreign students. It was something her community needed, but she didn’t have the capacity to run, and that’s where United Way was able to come in and provide resources and assistance.

“I think United Way does a really good job with the literacy component,” Sousa said. “I felt supported, and like I wasn’t alone in this.”

For more information on education programs or to donate United Way of Greater Atlanta, visit www.unitedwayatlanta.org. For volunteer opportunities, click here.