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At This Indianapolis School, Teaching Kids to Read Has Become a Community Effort

Partnerships with Butler and the MLK Center seek to help students meet their reading goals.

IPS students raise their hands during the after-school program. (Lee Klafczynski/Mirror Indy)

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The kids can hardly sit still. It’s “Green Eggs and Ham” day at the Martin Luther King Community Center’s after-school literacy lab.

Remnants of the afternoon activity — making green-dyed Rice Krispies Treats — decorate the kindergarten and first grade students’ fingers and faces. The lesson, paired with reading the Dr. Seuss classic, is meant to help students build connections with what they see in books.

“We use it as a life lesson and a learning lesson, and Dr. Seuss books are full of it,” said Jonna Lee, a youth worker with the MLK Center, after the early March exercise. “Today was learning to try new things.”

The MLK Center began its literacy lab eight years ago to support a school that staff noticed was struggling in the neighborhood.

James Whitcomb Riley School 43, about a block west of the MLK Center, has some of the highest needs in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. Last year, state records show only about a third of School 43 students passed Indiana’s third grade reading exam and 86% of students received free and reduced priced lunches, an indicator used to track school poverty.

Community leaders and alumni say they have watched for years as IPS budgets have tightened and staff have come and gone. Rather than stand by, they decided to help. An education committee formed, volunteers reopened the school library and the MLK Center launched its after-school literacy lab — a program that operates independently but collaborates with IPS to support students.

And now, with new grant funding and a growing partnership with Butler University, that collaboration is expected to grow. MLK Center staff say they’ll be able to expand their work with the kids who need it most.

“We try to make it fun and creative for them to see things in a different way,” Lee said of her students. “To understand that they are still learning, but we’re having fun doing it.”

MLK Center offers more than tutoring

As a school, James Whitcomb Riley has seen some recent wins with slightly more students passing the state’s third grade reading exam this year. But, the school still reports some of the lowest reading scores in IPS.

Just 35.3% of School 43 students passed the third grade reading exam last spring, state records show, falling more than 20 percentage points below the IPS district average of 60.6% and more than half that of the state average, 81.9%.

About a dozen staff serve more than 70 elementary students from School 43. Their five-days-a-week program incorporates literacy instruction on Tuesdays through Thursdays with one-on-one tutoring provided to students who are returning to the program for their second year.

More than 90% of students come to the literacy lab below reading level with little understanding of skills like shapes and letter sounds, said Lacrisha Hollins, the center’s youth programs director. When students stick with the program for at least two years, Hollins said, tutors are generally able to help students catch up to grade-level reading.

Youth workers like Lee do it by pairing play with literacy lessons. The goal is to get them learning without overwhelming them after a long day of school, Lee said. That means also incorporating activities into lessons, watching movies and taking time to go outside when the weather is nice.

Lee said she also tries to keep her plans flexible — something that might be challenging for a classroom teacher following a set curriculum schedule. If a student’s having a hard day at home or is struggling to learn a certain concept, Lee said she has the freedom to change her lessons as needed.

“They’re all experiencing different things, and we want it to be a safe place for them when they come here,” Lee said. “I’ve built a lot of relationships with the kids that I have and that opens up to them being trusting.”

MLK Center leadership said they see addressing the school’s literacy gaps as a matter of civil rights, and their work follows the Martin Luther King, Jr., philosophy of the beloved community, creating opportunities where no one is excluded.

That means the center takes all students, regardless of their family’s ability to pay for services, and provides extensive wraparound services, such as free snacks and meals. They also pick students up from school, bring them to the center for programming and drop them off at home at the end of the day.

During the summer and school breaks, the center offers extended hours with field trips and three meals daily. It also provides mental health resources — partnering with social work interns from local universities like IUPUI and Indiana Wesleyan University who work in the center during tutoring hours — and makes referrals to other community providers for more extensive support for families who need it.

“We don’t just provide tutoring,” Hollins said. “We provide health support for mom, dad, whoever’s in the household, free of charge. We provide for if they need shelter, if they need to pay their gas. We just provide any and everything for the whole family to be successful.”

Community partnership extends into School 43

The MLK Center’s partnership with School 43 extends beyond its after-school programs. Center staff and some of their volunteers — students from Butler University — also visit James Whitcomb Riley during the school day.

That means students who are in the MLK Center’s after-school program get reading support three times a day, Principal Crishell Sam said: once during class, again during volunteers’ visits and a third time after school.

Community volunteers were trained in IPS’ new reading curriculum, Sam said, so tutors and teachers know that they’re teaching students in similar ways.

It comes in tandem with community-led efforts to support the school, including a group of alumni and retired teachers who several years ago helped the school reopen its library with volunteers. Butler students and alumni now run it twice a week. The group meets monthly with the MLK Center team and school leaders as a part of a neighborhood education committee that seeks to compare efforts in literacy and family engagement.

The layers of community support come during a time of transition at School 43. James Whitcomb Riley will shift from a pre-K through eighth grade school to a pre-K through fifth grade elementary school next year under the district’s Rebuilding Stronger reorganization plan.

Most middle schoolers will go to Broad Ripple or Northwest next year rather than School 43.

As a first-year principal, Sam has also brought in new employees and is working with them to introduce the new reading curriculum recently adopted across IPS. She also plans to hire a media assistant so that the library can be open five days a week next school year. The community partnerships will continue.

“I believe that everyone that’s been hired to be here, they can do the work,” Sam said.”But the work can’t be done in isolation.”

Plans for growth

The MLK Center, which built its program with a goal to turn no one away, now has a waitlist.

It happened for the first time last year with more than 25 interested students, said Israel Shasanmi, deputy director of the MLK Center. That waitlist is at about 20 students, with more who have informally expressed interest in joining the program.

The center’s leaders are considering an expansion to support its child and adult programs. They’ve only begun the early stages of fundraising but renderings of a proposed expansion with a gymnasium and additional classrooms line the center’s lobby.

The literacy lab also received a major boost this year after its partners at Butler received a $750,000 grantfrom the Lilly Endowment to help School 43 adopt its new reading curriculum.

Butler officials say they’re still deciding how to spend the money. But Danielle Madrazo, with Butler’s College of Education, said they may use part of the funding to train Butler students and faculty who volunteer at the MLK Center and School 43’s library.

The grant will also support hiring two positions that will directly support the MLK Center. One will be a trained literacy specialist and the other will focus on relationship building with families.

“We have vision for supporting literacy in our community and our neighborhood,” Madrazo said of the partnership. “I’m excited for us to do big things for kids.”

Mary Dicken, the MLK Center’s advocacy and engagement director, said her team is always looking for volunteers, and the center accepts donations to support its literacy programs. The center also offers regular tours to allow the community to see tutoring in action.

More information about getting involved is available on the MLK Center’s website. A tour of the center can be scheduled by emailing GetInvolved@MLKCenterIndy.org

This story was originally published in Mirror Indy.

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