• June 2013

Reading Partners Leans in to Literacy, Community Engagement

By Lisa Lazarus
Regional Executive Director, Mid-Atlantic
Reading Partners

I learned a lot as a classroom teacher, a district administrator, and a nonprofit employee. Yet never have I felt as fulfilled—both professionally and personally—as I do having “leaned in” to my current role.

I serve as the Mid-Atlantic regional executive director of Reading Partners, a national nonprofit working to improve elementary literacy proficiency rates, and I am awed to know that thousands of volunteers like Kim Griffin are leaning in to their communities and making a difference by working with students like Jaron.

Jaron is hilarious and imaginative; one of his inventive tales describes a universe where family members live on different planets. Although Jaron is bright and earnest, his achievement in school has suffered under the many stresses of poverty. Jaron entered 3rd grade barely knowing all the letters of the alphabet. At a moment in his education when he should start reading to learn, Jaron is still learning to read.

As part of our program, every Wednesday afternoon Jaron meets with his Reading Partner, Kim Griffin.

Recently, the pair read “John, Paul, George, and Ben” and worked on a number of strategies to help Jaron improve his reading. When Jaron stumbled at the word “independent,” Griffin reminded him of a strategy called chunking, whereby a word is broken into smaller, digestible bits. After working through the word, Jaron charged forward, and the two finished the student read-aloud section of their lesson.

Sadly, thousands of elementary students in America like Jaron have fallen below grade-level benchmarks for literacy.

Early intervention is critical not only for these students’ short-term academic success, but also for their long-term life success. Multiple studies have shown a reliable correlation between reading proficiency and graduation rates, income levels, health, and civic engagement. Without Reading Partners and his tutor, Jaron’s future would be a lot less certain.

However, we can keep Jaron and other young readers on the path to success. Research tells us that early intervention can help struggling students become confident, motivated readers. Moreover, we know that trained and supervised volunteers can help students to improve their skills and self-confidence. The key is encouraging citizens to embrace community service, to lean in and make the time to make a difference.

Since our founding in 1999, we have been dedicated to showing community members what a tremendous difference one hour a week can make for a frustrated young reader. Thanks to nearly 6,000 volunteer Reading Partners like Griffin who choose to lean in and support a child, more than 5,000 students like Jaron in 103 schools across six states and Washington, DC, are getting the personalized support they need to master reading.

Knowing that Jaron wants to be “a pet detective, like Ace Ventura,” Griffin happily reads informational texts about animals with Jaron. Jaron says he enjoys working with Griffin because, “She’s a little funny. She lets me pick the books, and if I don’t know a word she helps me sound it out.”

Reading Partners works with students at their independent reading level, that level of text difficulty that is challenging yet achievable. We assess students three times per year, and our program staff meets regularly with each school’s teachers and principal to get a holistic view of each student. These assessments and meetings inform the Individualized Reading Plans that we design to address students’ strengths and struggles. The plans also track students’ progress through the Reading Partners curriculum, a series of research-validated, structured lesson plans that progress from phonics to text analysis skills.

This emphasis on individualization, on getting to know each student as a unique learner, yields impressive results. In 2011-12, 89 percent of Reading Partners students improved their achievement in reading. On average, students gained 1.6 months of literacy skills for every month in the program. Moreover, three out of four Reading Partners students narrowed their achievement gap.

Though Jaron is still behind, we are confident that he will catch up to his peers and will succeed in life. He has grit like you can’t imagine and a true love for learning. And now he is getting the individualized instruction he needs and deserves.

When we all lean in, everyone wins.

Just as Sheryl Sandberg said in her book, “Lean In,” the idea of being ambitious in any pursuit proves fruitful in our organization.

As Reading Partners’ Mid-Atlantic regional executive director, I am proud to work for an organization that takes this idea seriously and actualizes it daily.

  • I see our program managers lean in to ensure that our school-based AmeriCorps members have the know-how and judgment to run a reading center.
  • I see our AmeriCorps members lean in and seize the opportunity to provide at-elbow coaching to tutors.
  • I see our tutors lean in by asking students about their lives and interests and encouraging students to keep trying.
  • And I see our students lean in to learning, lean in so they can master the literacy skills that will unlock the opportunity to choose their own life path.

This network of support is what makes Reading Partners so special. Our volunteers choose to lean in, become a tutor and mentor for a young person, and help that young person lean in and find success.

Reading Partners provides a path for individuals to make a difference in their communities and in the life of a child. Indeed, our volunteers include high school and college students, businesspeople, stay-at-home parents, Teach for America alumni, the Baltimore City Fire Chief, retirees, and others.

I invite you to join us. If you live in a city where Reading Partners has programming, please join us as a volunteer in September. If you live in a city where Reading Partners is not yet available, I invite you to find a different way to lean in, help a child, and support your community.

When everyone leans in, we get results.


Reading Partners is a national nonprofit organization that provides volunteer-led, one-on-one literacy tutoring to more than 5,500 elementary school students in 103 schools in low-income communities across six states and the District of Columbia. Reading Partners delivers a highly effective, research-validated program that has helped thousands of children master the fundamental reading skills they need to succeed in school and beyond.

For more information, visit www.readingpartners.org.

Would you like to join us? Send me an email: lisa.lazarus@readingpartners.org. And follow her on Twitter: @lisaflazarus.

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