How partnerships between local public schools and a nonprofit literacy organization are galvanizing more students, and their families, to read

Written by Wendy White, RBBB Advocate, in collaboration with Dr. Betsy Hargrove, Avondale Elementary School District Superintendent, and Dawn Wallace, Vice President of the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and RBBB Governing Board Member

What happens to 51 schools and their after-school 3rd grade literacy programs when there’s no after-school? This was the prospect faced by schools in 10 different districts in Maricopa and Pinal counties and their partner Read Better Be Better (RBBB) in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered schools across Arizona. Suddenly, the only program in the state that pairs 3rd grade students with 6th-8th grade volunteers to improve both literacy and leadership skills was forced to cease its twice-weekly sessions in the middle of the semester.

Like all of Arizona’s students, RBBB’s participants were instantly homebound; their caregivers tasked with simultaneously juggling work and managing their children’s education in the home; while school staff scrambled to continue providing what once was part of a normal day including homework packets, meals, and access to school social workers. Teachers were especially hard-hit and immediately had to figure out how to adapt their lesson plans to remote teaching, learn digital technology to conduct classes and, once distance learning began, not only teach students but monitor their in-class virtual behavior, work individually with students who needed more support, and maintain communication with students and their families online and by phone. The demands of the job and the accompanying stress were high, and remain so.

Building the Foundation for All Learning

“We did not want to add to that pressure but we knew that it was imperative to adapt our program to the new circumstances so that we could continue filling the need for additional reading intervention,” said Sophie Allen-Etchart, RBBB CEO, who founded the organization in 2014 in response to Arizona’s literacy crisis and the state’s goal that by 2030, 72% of all 3rd graders will be reading at or above grade level.

Much work remains. Currently only 34% of 3rd graders from low-income families in the state read at grade level and often are unable to make the pivotal transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” by 4th grade, which is the foundational skill for all future learning. However, on average, in just one 10-week session, RBBB 3rd graders score 20% higher on standardized reading tests than their nonparticipating peers. Better yet, the students themselves recognize that they’ve improved: 88% of 3rd graders agree that they are better at reading after a semester of RBBB than they were before and 87% of middle school volunteers state that they have what it takes to be a good leader after participating in RBBB.

The RBBB curriculum guides sit side by sideWithout the availability of the schools to facilitate in-person sessions, RBBB had no program. But superintendents and teachers from the partner school districts soon began contacting Allen-Etchart and RBBB staff members to discuss adapting the program to the new circumstances. The stakes were high—literacy is critical not only for a child’s future academic success but for the long-term quality of their life. Students who do not read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. With proper reading intervention, however, there is an 89% chance that students who can read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade will graduate from high school, irrespective of socio-economic status.

“Read Better Be Better has always been innovative,” explained Dr. Betsy Hargrove, superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District, an RBBB partner for the past five years. “And last spring, RBBB shifted with us as we faced the greatest challenge education has ever experienced.”

“In the midst of having to figure out so much at once, our partner superintendents and teachers never wavered in their focus of putting the best interests of the children first. They reached out and asked for help, which spurred our response,” added Allen-Etchart. “Flimsy collaborations fall apart under stress but our collaboration with the public schools was forged under this fire.”

Transitioning from After-School to At-Home

An RBBB Program Coach holds up a Literacy Kit during a kit building event.Allen-Etchart designed RBBB’s traditional after-school programming model to be simple and straightforward, which allows for quick and efficient replication in schools in order to reach as many students as possible. RBBB Program Coaches oversee each after-school session, but it is the older students who are responsible for applying the curriculum. The middle school volunteers guide the 3rd graders through an evidence-based process that starts with the students taking turns reading aloud a story from RBBB’s library, the older students then model how to write down thoughts and insights about the story, and finally the pairs discuss the story together, all of which improves both the 3rd graders’ reading skills and the middle school volunteers’ leadership skills.

In adapting the curriculum, RBBB’s team capitalized on the program’s uncomplicated framework to transition to a remote format—Read Better Be Better At Home—by the time schools resumed in the fall.   The new iteration pairs a 2nd-4th grade student with an older sibling or other family member in the home. Over the course of 6 weeks, students partner twice a week for 30 minutes each session. They work through a simplified version of the same curriculum as the after-school program, but they also receive books for their home and have an online library available to them upon request. Additionally, Program Coaches contact caregivers weekly to answer questions, receive updates about student progress, and serve as a resource for additional support. The Fall 2020 semester saw 136 Leaders and 152 Readers participate and the families’ responses to the program have been overwhelmingly positive.

“My 3rd grader can now explain to me what she has read,” one Buckeye Elementary School parent reported. “She has gone from dreading reading to asking if she can! Instead of playing video games right after school, now my kids want to read together and talk about what character they would be in the book.”

Expanding to Early Learning

Additionally, in conjunction with Avondale teachers, RBBB is developing a K-1 curriculum to help tackle the issue earlier so that children are reading at grade level, and beyond, before they reach 3rd grade.  “Read Better Be Better has served 2nd and 3rd grade students as well as middle school students during the past five years,” said Hargrove. “Now the program is positively impacting parents and caregivers as well as other children in the home, especially the youngest ones. We’re able to reach the whole continuum of family members.”

This continuum is evidenced by a parent from Inca Elementary School in the Buckeye Elementary School District who shared that “Without Read Better Be Better we wouldn’t have started family reading nights. Now we all are reading more and talking about what we read.”

The pandemic has devastated lives, the economy, and most semblances of “normal life.” Additionally—and with a white-hot light—it has exposed societal inequities that have existed for generations. But within the narrow confines of life during COVID-19 there exists a new latitude for creative solutions that are leading to long-needed changes.

“Rather than hang onto the hope of going back to normal, we’ve embraced the new normal,” said Hargrove. “We’ve taken the opportunity to respond nimbly to this situation to make improvements that will create opportunities for our students to be even more successful beyond the pandemic.”

Offering A Menu of Options
With the start of the Spring 2021 semester, the schools, which now number 67, and their families have a menu of program options to choose from: Literacy Kits, which contain an RBBB curriculum guide, sticky notes, a book, and other reading materials for a self-directed program; RBBB At Home; and the traditional after-school program, once it’s safe to do so. Also, with support from the Arizona Community Foundation, RBBB will soon reach students throughout the state thanks to new partnerships with community-based organizations, including domestic violence shelters, youth centers, and food banks.

“When a community commits to prioritizing children, the potential benefits are limitless,” said Allen-Etchart.

What began last March as the shutting of thousands of doors at schools across the state ended up being the beginning of new doors opening for Read Better Be Better and its partner schools because of their collaborative efforts. As hundreds and hundreds of students and their families have started reading together, yes, comprehension has improved, concentration has been boosted but even more—in the midst of an isolating pandemic—the magic of reading has brought these families closer together. Said one Alta Loma Elementary School parent, “I love how my girls sit and read together, doing something meaningful and educational.”