Mentorship Changes the Game in Early Childhood and Elementary Education

by Maggie Kohn
Sep 4, 2019 12:35 PM ET
Article

This article series is sponsored by the SunTrust Foundation and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

It’s amazing to see what can happen when an adult and a child spend 30 uninterrupted minutes together with a book. 

So says John Gibson, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in intellectual property litigation. Gibson also serves as the board chair for Everybody Wins! Atlanta, an innovative mentorship program that aims to instill a love for reading in children and, in the process, improve the reading levels of American students.

Studies show that reading aloud to a child is the best way to improve literacy. For thousands of children throughout the country, however, there is simply no one to read to them. Parents may be juggling multiple jobs, working long hours, or simply not around. For these children, the impact can be devastating.

According to research, a student who can't read on grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who reads proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer.

In Georgia, where two-thirds of fourth grade children are not at a proficient reading level, the statistics paint a bleak picture. 

Sometimes people just need an extra hand

Gibson, who has volunteered with Everybody Wins! since 2011 at Hope-Hill Elementary School in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, says the role of teachers and schools is becoming tougher as class sizes increase, budgets shrink, and testing requirements grow each year. 

“The schools invite us in because they know that every bit helps,” Gibson tells us. “The schools really want their students to succeed. We are one piece of the puzzle.”

Everybody Wins! was founded nearly 30 years ago by Arthur Tannenbaum and his wife, Phyllis. Tannenbaum, a chief financial officer for a textile corporation in New York City, was distressed that disadvantaged children didn't get what he considered to be an equitable education. Phyllis, an elementary school teacher, knew firsthand the benefits of reading and suggested that her husband develop a reading program which took place during lunch and recess and didn't pull children out of class.

In 1991, Tannenbaum took an early retirement and formed the privately-funded nonprofit Everybody Wins! New York. Today, there are chapters in Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. 

Changing a child’s life in the time it takes to have lunch

Through Power Lunch, the primary program of Everybody Wins!, teachers select students in first through fifth grades who read below grade level and would benefit from the attention of a caring adult. Everybody Wins! pairs the students with volunteers, who promise to read to the same reading buddy consistently once a week during his or her lunch hour for the entire year.  

During the 2018-2019 school year, Power Lunch volunteers in Atlanta were paired with more than 500 students at 10 low-income Title I schools. And because there is always a waiting list of more kids who want to be in the program, Everybody Wins! is constantly recruiting additional volunteers. 

Because work schedules sometimes fluctuate, volunteers also have the option to "share" a student with another volunteer: The two volunteers then take turns reading to the child, visiting the child twice a month instead of weekly. Children are not drilled in phonics or whole-word reading methods. The goal of the program is to improve literacy by making students want to read.

The other important element of the program for the students is the consistent presence of an adult in their lives, who will show up for them every week and who they know wants them to succeed. “Consistency is so important,” says Gibson, whose wife is also a Power Lunch volunteer.

The Power Lunch program is free to the students and the hosting school. The program is funded solely by donors and grants from individuals and organizations such as the SunTrust Foundation based in Atlanta. The support of the SunTrust Foundation in particular will be used to help students bridge the gap between reading and financial literacy through interactive activities that introduce basic money management and financial concepts. Donor funding also allows Everybody Wins! to purchase books for students and helps expand the number of schools it can serve.   

And it’s not just the kids who benefit from the program—based on comments from mentors, it’s clear how the organization got its name. “I have gained more than I can possibly express from the program, including a deeper understanding of what a school day is like for today’s elementary students, and a glimpse into the lives of teachers,” said Caitlin Daugherty Kokenes, a reader with Everyone Wins! Atlanta since 2016. “All of these things help me be a better advocate for public education and the needs of our system.”

Results speak for themselves

Each year since the Atlanta chapter began in 1997, volunteer readers have spent more than 6,000 hours reading with their students. In a recent study of the program, 91 percent of Power Lunch students showed measurable reading improvement from the beginning to the end of the school year, while 80 percent of students in the program passed the reading portion of the statewide standardized test. 

For Gibson, however, it’s the smaller aspects that show the true results. 

“The first time you meet with a new student, they are shy,” he says. “They hesitate to speak to you and definitely don’t want to read out loud. But at the end of the school year, they can’t wait to tell you what they did over the weekend, they want to read to you, and they remember that vocabulary word you shared with them last week … Now they can say it and know what it means. It’s absolutely amazing to see their reading and their confidence grow.” 

He notes that the end of every school year is emotional. The volunteers and students meet for a presentation in the gym, where each mentor and student take a picture together. Gibson has pictures in his office from every year. “You hope you will see them next year, but if you don’t, you know you have done your part to advance them to the next stage in their life. You know you have given them the means to succeed.” 

Image credit: U.S. Department of Education/Flickr