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Reading & Literacy

Early Literacy Push in Philadelphia Seeks to Put Down Deep, Diverse Roots

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 28, 2016 9 min read
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On a sweltering, 100-degree afternoon, several miles north of the Democratic National Convention here, Nassem Hudson asks a reading mentor if he can read Grace for President aloud to other kids.

The book is about a little girl who hears there’s never been a woman as U.S. president and decides that needs to change. Naseem’s peers are seated on the floor of Tree House Books, a North Philadelphia organization that began as a neighborhood book store and now uses reading, books, and literacy to improve the lives of children, adults, and the surrounding community.

The Monday afternoon reading session, which links younger children with high school and college students who help them with their literacy skills, is part of a summer Life with Books program run by Tree House Books.

The themes of the Life with Books program, which operates with cohorts of children in five-week cycles, focuses the children’s reading and activities on entrepreneurship, social justice, environmentalism, and other themes. For example, the children recently wrote a letter to the police captain of the 22nd Precinct here about law enforcement.

The goal is to create a reading “continuum” from young age into adulthood, said Charlyn Griffith, Tree House Books’ director of community engagement for Tree House Books.

The idea is that teenagers at Tree House, who work there through the Philadelphia Youth Network, experience an improvement in own academic work as they help younger children with their reading. And many of the adults the organization serves are underemployed or unemployed, underscoring their needs and the goals of its programs.

“The adult that isn’t taught to read as a child is the adult who doesn’t read to his or her child,” Griffith said.

The Ecosystem

And while Tree House Books serves a variety of roles in its North Philadelphia neighborhood, it is also one of several groups playing a part in a larger, nonprofit Philadelphia campaign called Read by 4th, which involves partners from the public and private sectors and is managed by the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The goal of the Read by 4th campaign is simple, or at least it’s simple to articulate: By 2020, the campaign wants to double the number of incoming 4th graders who read on grade level in the City of Brotherly Love.

But the problem Read by 4th campaign faces is a daunting one: Right now, fewer than 4 in 10 public school students in Philadelphia are proficient in reading when they enter the 4th grade—and “that’s a predictor of getting way off-track,” said Jenny Bogoni, the executive director of Read by 4th in Philadelphia.

The campaign wants to push hard on improving school readiness, regular school attendance, the quality of education in schools, and out-of-school and summer learning opportunities. That last factor is where Tree House Books, in addition to staying true to its own mission in the city, can play an important part.

“I think of it as an ecosystem,” Bogoni said, describing the campaign’s diverse approach. “It really means that when you’re trying to address a social issue that’s been intractable for decades, you need a cross-sectorial approach. Because it isn’t dependent on any one sector or any one activity to change the tide.”

The smallest, youngest, but most important part of that ecosystem, Nassem, age 9, considers himself a “good reader.” But Tree House provides him with more than help with literacy. On Monday, it gave him a chance to get a snack, express himself, share his favorite cartoon movie with his peers, and connect with young people who can help him and understand his background.

“I like coming here and knowing that I have people who care about me,” said Naseem, who’s heading into the 4th grade next year. “This is a safe place.”

The Pledge

In the Philadelphia neighborhood that Tree House Books calls home, the reading skills of young people desperately need improvement—right next door, just 12 percent of students scored proficient on the state English/language arts exam in 2014-15 at the Tanner G. Duckrey K-8 school.

Over 93 percent of the students there were black, and every single one was considered economically disadvantaged, as of the 2015-16 school year, according to district statistics.

“The reading levels will make you sad. The math levels will break your heart,” said Eli Goldblatt, a board member of Tree House Books and Temple University English pofessor. (Just 5 percent of Duckrey students scored proficient in math in 2015-16.)

After an economic analysis of the struggling neighborhood many years ago said a bookstore could be a worthwhile endeavor, and after the store opened its doors on the site where a tree used to stand, children were the first to come through its doors, Goldblatt said.

A Temple graduate student started volunteering to help those children with literacy skills, and Tree House Books’ offering and programs for children have expanded and evolved ever since.

Each day of the week through the five-week reading program, the children read the same book with their teenage and young adult mentors. One day might feature If I Were President, in keeping with Tree House Books’ current “legacy and leadership” theme to match the 2016 election. But at the end of that day, the kids won’t encounter that book for another week. They might even have to stop at a particularly dramatic moment, to build the drama for the next week.

“Our kids are going to expect more of their teachers because of the time they’re spending here,” Griffith said.

But before any reading, the children have to go through several steps:

  • They have to sign in, grab a notebook with their names on them, and wash their hands.

  • Then they sit at a table with markers and crayons on top of paper. “We want them to be able to write all over the place,” Griffith said.
  • Every camper, along with the teenagers and college students, have to “check in.” That means have to take time to share something about how they feel, and share a personal preference or insight, such as their favorite superhero. On Monday, for example, they were asked to share their favorite animated show or movie—"Frozen” gets several nods.
  • Then there’s the Tree House Pledge, in which the children say they must behave honestly and nonviolently, and remember personal responsibility, among other things. (View the slideshow at the beginning of this post to hear Ayah Free, Griffith’s 5-year-old daughter, recite the pledge.)
  • Snack is served—on Wednesday it’s onion-flavored chips and blueberries.

Then it’s storytime. In addition to focusing on reading that helps the younger children as well as themselves, the teenage mentors learn “not saying ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and saying ‘What happened?’” to their younger mentees who are having rough days, said Naeemah Gadson, 17, and a rising senior at the Academy at Palumbo in Philadelphia.

And the program has also helped the teenagers think long-term. Keaira Jones, 18, a Tree House program assistant and rising freshman at Mansfield University in nearby Mansfield, Pa., said that the Tree House programs create a special environment. And it’s helping her think about a future in the field.

“I want to be an entrepreneur. But I’m thinking about a day care. So this is ... helping me learn how to deal with children. Working with my peers is wonderful. We get to feed off each other,” Jones said.

The Summer

Read by 4th itself is, in turn, part of the nationwide Campaign for Grade-Level reading initiative around the country, which focuses on improving reading skills overall and for low-income students in particular. About 240 communities around the country have some sort of similar campaign, Bogoni said.

In Philadelphia, Read by 4th is also focusing on areas of child development that don’t directly deal with reading, but which together campaign leaders say greatly influences a child’s ability to stay on track with reading skills in their elementary school careers.

They want to reduce chronic absenteeism, track students’ health and nutrition, and develop kindergarten entry assessments, among other goals. And while state funding streams, the Every Student Succeeds Act (the federal K-12 law), and a push for “evidence-based” literacy instruction in classrooms play into the group’s strategy, the campaign wants to focus on activities beyond school walls.

Over the summer, the campaign is helping to create new (and to help pre-existing) read-aloud sessions and other literacy efforts at over 140 summer camps in the city—that’s probably been the campaign’s biggest success so far, said Abby Thaker, the director of strategic partnerships for Read by 4th. Each of those camps hosts roughly 30 kids.

“Places that aren’t already thinking about summer reading are getting on board and infusing summer reading into their habits,” Thaker said.

There are also book distributions at several sites; drop-in reading programs at over 50 libraries, and awareness efforts that include Mayor Jim Kenney and local radio personality Cheryl Hayden, who’s known as Cappuchino. Bogoni said they want to make “literacy part of breathing” and for kids to cross paths with reading in multiple ways.

The Obstacles

During his check-in Monday, Benjamin Butler, 16, a rising junior at Eastern University Academy Charter School, discusses the reality show he wants to be on, “America Ninja Warrior.”

“You have to have strategy. You have to be smart with your movements, ‘cause any second you could mess up. There’s a bunch of obstacles you have to make it through,” Benjamin said.

There are obstacles for everyone involved in the literacy efforts, too, for Tree House and Read by 4th.

Bogoni says that, simply put, schools are underfunded, an issue with a rocky and recent history in the city and in Pennsylviania. And she notes that, for all the group’s focus on the ecosystem and its multifaceted approach, there’s “a large amount of pressure” to show clear improvement on academic metrics.

And those involved with Tree House Books say that although the group has worked with Tanner Duckrey K-8 school closely in the past, the strength of its partnership with the neighborhood school fluctuates.

But Bogoni said the campaign’s goals are not unrealistic.

“There’s a role for everyone in this,” she said. “I personally believe that grade-level reading is not something we can’t get to. The fact that it hasn’t moved in decades doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

On Monday, one thing that never faltered was the heat. After spending much of the mid-day reading and sharing their thoughts with each other, the children at Tree House Books are ready for a change of pace. They get their swimsuits on and head out to go to a neighborhood pool. It is the summer vacation, after all, and it is 100 degrees in Philadelphia.

Photo slide show and photos of Tree House Books by Deanna Del Ciello/Education Week: Children at Tree House Books eye their snacks before beginning their reading sessions; Keaira Jones, 18, a Tree House program assistant, reads to children; in keeping with the 2016 presidential election, the children are reading Grace for President and are involved in other activities touching on democracy and civics.

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