Sixty percent of all third graders in Arkansas read below their grade level. For AR Kids Read, a nonprofit aiming to reverse that trend by helping kids learn to read, that statistic is a driving force.
According to Dionne Jackson, AR Kids Read’s executive director, at third grade, reading level is a determining factor in the likelihood of kids graduating from high school with the skills necessary to succeed in college and the workforce.
Founded in 2012, AR Kids Read is a volunteer-based literacy intervention program designed to provide students who read below grade level with trained tutors. These tutors are community members who, each week, donate one hour of their time to the mission. Their goal is for every child in Arkansas to read proficiently by the end of third grade by ensuring access to books, building awareness and engaging the community for help.
Jackson says tutors provide students with more opportunities to read by using easy-to-implement methods that serve as additional support to classroom reading time. Tutors work one-on-one, building relationships between the student and the tutor that create an ideal environment for learning.
“AR Kids Read’s mission is to improve the future of Arkansas’ children and families by advancing literacy education through community engagement and tutoring so that all children can read proficiently by the end of third grade,” Jackson says.
More than 160 community members volunteer as tutors to serve 320 students in Pulaski County, and the $24,000 First Book grant ensures access to books for the more than 600 students who need them most.
Each year, the AR Kids Read board of directors nominates and selects individuals to recognize as community leaders who go above and beyond to support the vision and mission of AR Kids Read. The 2020 Community Leaders are Hugh and Michelle McDonald.
As the former president and CEO of Entergy Arkansas, Hugh knows a lot about why reading is important.
“A well-educated community is the common denominator to so many positive outcomes in life – whether it’s good-paying jobs, entrepreneurial and creative environments, growing economy, reducing poverty, improving health, increasing quality of life, etc.”
The two have been tutoring third graders for four years at Stephens Elementary and, if you ask them, they’ve never had a bad day.
“You can’t help but build a relationship with each one, and if you’re lucky enough to have the same student for a couple of years in a row, that’s even better,” Hugh says. “Consistent adult behavior for some of these kids is rare, so showing up every week is important and they do notice. If you miss a week they will get in your face and ask you directly, ‘Where were you last week?’”
Through training, presentations and collaborations, AR Kids Read builds awareness of the state’s literacy equity needs and looks for ways to effectively address the current literary crisis.
In addition to the weekly, in-school tutoring of first, second and third graders, volunteers provide out-of-school tutoring during the summer and after school by partnering with Reading is Fundamental and Life Skills for Youth through the Read for Success program to combat summer learning loss.
An Hour a Week
For Hugh and Michelle, their time with AR Kids Read is about offering guidance wherever they can.
“It’s a great way to be involved in helping a child that really needs the help in their reading skills and to provide another support for them to not fall behind and get discouraged in school and ultimately fail or drop out,” Hugh says.
“One day you may spend all your time reading with them, another day you may help coach them with a problem that started at home or at school and sometimes you just have a conversation with them and explore.”
According to Hugh, the kids are most positively affected by the consistent schedule and the relationship they build with their tutor, all during a critical time when students fall behind and never catch back up.
“While these kids aren’t ours, the entire community is as much ours as anyone else’s, so we view it as a responsibility of ours to help these kids that need the help,” he says.
“They will become the future husbands, wives, parents, employees, neighbors and voters in our community. If the incremental time we spend with them each week can help tip the scale for them to be better readers, better students, help them understand why it’s important to stay in school and ultimately be productive and successful citizens, then why wouldn’t everyone try to help tip the scale in the right direction?
“It’s an hour a week during the school year, and we have the time.”
AR Kids Read is currently focused on completing its Vision 2025 strategic planning process and continuing its work to serve first through third graders using data-driven, research-based interventions.
“In 2020, we will be piloting out-of-school-literacy programming in after school and summer programs through collaborations with nonprofits, city government and school districts,” Jackson says. “We will also enhance our relationships with our school communities by developing and implementing a tutoring model that will allow AR Kids Read to have a greater, more purposeful presence in the schools we serve.”
Another priority for the nonprofit, according to Jackson, is developing stronger assessment mechanisms to better support students while improving reporting to donors and the community regarding program impact.
In the spirit of building stronger readers to build a stronger community and brighter futures, AR Kids Read hosts annual events, including its upcoming Spellebration, a celebrity spelling bee designed to raise funds and awareness for the one-on-one tutoring program.
Putting the Puzzle Together
“There is, and will always be a real need to lend your time to serve in a capacity where you can be a net positive influence in many areas,” Hugh says, reflecting on why he got involved with AR Kids Read.
“These kids have all the potential in the world, but many do not have the support structure to develop that potential. Some of these kids grow up with challenges that are hard for any adult to imagine,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, regardless of what their parents did or didn’t do, the kids need a consistent community of support from all directions.
“The time we spend with them just happens to be one small piece of a puzzle with a thousand other pieces. If we can be one piece of the puzzle and support the bigger picture of developing good, educated citizens with employable skills, then that’s our job and it’s absolutely worth doing.”