Reading & Literacy

Entrepreneurs’ Literacy Program Takes Off in D.C. Schools

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 04, 2005 7 min read

It would have been easier to write a check.

But Nina Zolt wasn’t convinced that simply providing money for disadvantaged students in the District of Columbia would have the desired effect on their reading skills, or spark an appreciation of reading.

Lacking knowledge in the field, the former entertainment lawyer set out to school herself in learning theory and instruction, as well as the workings of the bureaucracy in the 65,000-student district, for insight into how best to proceed.

Nina Zolt at the In2Books office in Washington D.C.

“My first inclination was to just give money to an organization,” she said recently. “But I wanted to reach the kids directly.”

Now, seven years later, Ms. Zolt, and her husband, Miles Gilburne, a venture capitalist, have marshaled more than $15 million in private donations, much of it their own, to employ a carefully crafted framework for building reading and writing skills, along with the books, teacher training, and support services needed to do so.

The resulting program, dubbed In2Books, has become an integral part of the curriculum in hundreds of classrooms throughout many of the capital city’s elementary schools. And this school year, it has spread into a small number of schools in Chicago. Test results from In2Books classrooms suggest that the investment may be paying off.

“Even from the beginning, it was a well-founded concept, and the accountability was solid,” said Robert C. Rice, the acting chief academic officer for Washington’s public schools. “It has developed into what I think is quite a spectacular piece, particularly how it fits with the D.C. reading and literacy program, filling in the gaps.”

‘A Personal Crusade’

Since she dropped off the first box of books to a single school back in 1997, Ms. Zolt has toiled full-time, and on an unpaid basis, to enhance the program and coaxed others to help her.

“I always had a fuzzy-to-clear vision of what I wanted to happen, then I always looked for people to help me [sharpen the vision and] make it real,” she said.

First, she appealed to literacy experts for guidance in shaping the program and pored over the research on effective reading instruction. Then, she recruited more than 300 teachers to use the lessons and rallied thousands of volunteers to act as pen pals and mentors to elementary pupils.

“I thought that if you could make sure all kids have books, good books, it would be a step in the right direction,” the energetic founder said. “But all the research says you need more. If you just give them the books, you don’t know if they read them, if they understand them.”

That Ms. Zolt was able to penetrate a school system viewed by some as impervious to change, and gain momentum through an often-turbulent era of governance for the city’s schools, is testimony to her persistence, Mr. Rice said.

“Nina believes personally so strongly that the youngsters in D.C. can read and write [proficiently], but that they just have to have the right opportunity. This is a personal crusade for her,” he said. “She worked very hard to make it … fit in the right place in instruction.”

After her start with a handful of classrooms and a few volunteers, the positive feedback from the teachers, and their plea for more help in improving instruction, motivated Ms. Zolt to expand the program.

By the 2000-01 school year, teachers in 42 schools here had joined, more than double the previous year’s number. Ms. Zolt and her paid staff of about 30 have since assembled some 4,000 local professionals to write letters to the 7,500 Washington pupils taking part in the initiative, about half the 2nd through 5th graders in the city’s schools. More than 300 teachers in some 60 elementary schools have signed on, too. They attend yearlong courses on developing literacy and building the reading and writing lessons into the district’s language arts curriculum.

Internet Pen Pals

The program anonymously pairs pupils and trained pen pals through the Internet, allowing them to correspond while maintaining student safety. The adults read the assigned books, then write letters to the children outlining their opinions about the characters, story lines, and central themes. They may also question the youngsters about what they learn from the books.

Pupils respond with personal greetings and their own impressions of the books, following some of the writing guidelines they’ve learned in class.

In Jennyfer Diaz’s class at West Elementary School here recently, Juanita quickly jots down her thoughts for her pen pal on the 2004 presidential election. After stating her strong opinions about the campaign and the eventual outcome, the 5th grader describes the connections she saw between that real-life event and the book she had just finished reading, Johanna Hurwitz’s Class President, about a fictional school election.

“I like writing to my pen pal,” Juanita says, “because I get to learn about a new person in my life.”

The exercise, which is completed for each of five books assigned throughout the school year, has become a highly anticipated one, says Ms. Diaz.

“The program gives the children a lot of materials, and the pen pals help them to engage more with the books,” she says. Moreover, notes Ms. Diaz, who is in her third year of teaching, the professional development and the teachers’ manual have helped her improve her instruction.

Stephanie Page-Baxter, a 3rd grade teacher at Aiton Elementary School, has had a similar experience. She joined In2Books five years ago for the promise of free books for her students. Many children in the mostly poor and working class neighborhood in Northeast Washington had few of their own, the veteran teacher said. But the program proved beneficial for her as well.

“It’s given me valuable information on how to improve reading and writing instruction,” Ms. Page-Baxter said. “I can see the growth in their writing and their ability to respond to pen pal letters in a more personal way, and to make connections with the text.”

Helping students make connections between literature and their own lives and think critically about the stories were among Ms. Zolt’s initial goals for the program.

Books are selected by an outside committee of advisers for each grade level based on the quality of the writing and the values that the characters demonstrate. The books, which stretch across genres from fiction to biography to informational texts, often show a character’s resilience and ability to solve problems.

In Class President, for example, a 5th grader who runs for office proves himself a leader when he rouses his classmates to hold a bake sale to pay for replacing a student’s broken eyeglasses.

Results Noted

Pushing into the rest of the schools and classrooms in Washington could prove challenging, given the cost of the materials and professional development offered under the program—about $4 million annually, half of which the school district underwrites.

The In2Books organization is also paying for the program in about 10 Chicago public schools, although Ms. Zolt acknowledges that its future there rests on the ability to draw support from other private sources.

Students at Aiton Elementary School in the District of Columbia take part in a reading program designed by Nina Zolt.

Expansion of the Washington initiative under a new superintendent is not certain either, although Clifford B. Janey, who took over the post last fall, has directed In2Books teachers in the district to continue the program. Many teachers may be reluctant to take on the additional work required to infuse In2Books lessons into their language arts instruction, said Aiton Elementary’s principal, Peggy Mussenden.

The teachers meet half a dozen times a year for intensive sessions to discuss the books and learn teaching strategies. They take part in professional reading groups in between classes. And consultants visit their classrooms to help with lessons and provide feedback.

“It’s helped improve students’ spelling and punctuation, descriptive and narrative writing, and its overall reinforcement of the curriculum,” she said. But “with the additional work they have to do for In2Books,” she said of teachers, “sometimes they feel overwhelmed. … They love the program, but it’s extra.”

But in the current national drive for greater school accountability for student results, In2Books seems to have the evidence it needs to push on. Ms. Zolt and her colleagues have taken pains to make their case for the program’s efficacy by carefully documenting its effects. Independent studies have concluded that children in the program can demonstrate stronger critical-thinking skills and are more efficient writers than those in control groups.

And an analysis of standardized-test scores released in November shows higher achievement for students in In2Books classes—about 9 points on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition among 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders—than for their peers in other classrooms. Teacher surveys have also been positive.

Teachers can gauge that progress themselves, using the program’s online database, which catalogs each student letter and grades it based on a common rubric for each grade.

The biggest benefits, however, are seen with students, according to William H. Teale, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has worked with and studied the program.

In2Books helps raise achievement levels, he said, “but more fundamentally [it helps] kids in urban areas and in a poverty environment ... stretch their boundaries. These kids don’t have experiences or the associated vocabulary skills because they’re poor, ... but they develop an attachment to their pen pals, and they go places through their books.”

For Ms. Zolt, that’s the payback.

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Entrepreneurs’ Literacy Program Takes Off in D.C. Schools

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