Center City: New Program Combats Illiteracy Among Philadelphia’s Youth

The Free Library of Philadelphia has long benefited communities around the city. As the adult illiteracy rate in Philadelphia continues to rise, the library system has strengthened a two-year program called Read by 4th to combat illiteracy at a young age.

“The statistic we go off of is that less than 40 percent of kids in third grade can read at grade level,” said Terah Stivers, a volunteer coordinator and outreach specialist at Read by 4th.

Confronted with that harrowing statistic, Stivers and the Read by 4th team have initiated a citywide effort with more than 80 organizations. These organizations aim to increase the number of students entering fourth grade who can read at the appropriate grade level.

“Reading by third grade is a good indicator of what a child is going to be like in future educational settings and beyond,” Stivers said.

According to a 2009 report from the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, more than half of the adults in Philadelphia do not have the literacy and work skills necessary to “compete in our knowledge-based economy or to successfully complete a postsecondary degree.”

Read by 4th is hoping to combat that reality by engaging children in literacy at a young age and ensuring that they are on track to develop life-long literacy skills.

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“The amount of students who are not reading at grade level applies to students in charter schools, private schools and public schools,” Stivers said.

To reach children across all demographics and educational settings, Read by 4th created two specific programs for community engagement: the Book Nook and the Community Ambassador Program.

“Community ambassadors are people living in the communities that go into the schools and monitor the attendance and engagement of the students,” Stivers said. “I’ve been in touch with a few ambassadors over the school year so far and we’ve already seen in increase in attendance.”

Aside from working at the school-level, Read by 4th seeks to engage children in reading throughout the city through the “Book Nook.”

“A book nook is a small bookshelf that can be placed in any small business around the city where we know kids will be sitting and waiting,” said Stivers. “It could be at a laundry mat or a barbershop or a doctor’s office. It’s the importance of giving access to a book and access to taking advantage of an opportunity to read.”

Stivers is currently working with Global Citizen to try and have 250 Book Nooks throughout the city for the Martin Luther King Day of Service. She only needs to find 50 more locations willing to host a Book Nook. (Applications can be found here).

To ensure that students are developing the proper skills to read for learning throughout their entire lives, Read by 4th works comprehensively with people at all levels of a child’s education: parents, teachers, peers, libraries, etc.

“We are in constant communication with the Philadelphia school district and pediatricians around the city,” Stivers said. “We even talk to universities and colleges that teach education to make sure future teachers are well prepared to teach children effectively.”

Terah Stivers working at her desk in the Read by 4th office.

In an effort to engage further with the community, Read by 4th hosts a Sunday Literacy Program at five branch libraries in the city. Parents can bring children into the library to work on strengthening their reading and writing skills with a Sunday literacy coach for an hour and a half.

“We work with the school district to know what the kids are learning in school, and we practice and strengthen their skills accordingly,” said William Breeman, Sunday literacy coach at the Walnut West Library.

The Sunday Literacy Program is a pilot program through Read by 4th and has not received a lot of attention. However, Breeman has seen a steady increase of children coming to the program since it began on Nov. 6.

“I usually have an average of four children coming in, which is good because I can spend one-on-one time with each while the others are doing independent reading,” he said. “This program is great for helping kids who are at-risk for low reading levels or on the verge of being at-risk.”

Scout Mayor, the Children’s librarian and sit-in observer of the Sunday Literacy Program, oversaw the children’s interactions and engagement with the reading material.

       Scout Mayor working at her desk in the children’s section of the Walnut West library.

“Literacy affects all ages, but it is critically important to have focused learning for young children struggling to read at grade level,” she said. “Developing strong reading and writing skills is crucial for whatever these kids are going to be doing in their lives.”

The Read by 4th campaign works hard to try and help the youth of the city engage more in reading. Amid their continuous work with more than 80 partners, Read by 4th is also working on a new website that will be more accessible to the public.

“The new website will have printable resources for parents and lots of information about different services around the city for kids struggling with literacy,” Stivers said. “We’re really excited for the website to go live. Please visit it in January of 2017.”

– Text and images by Taylor Schwartz and Cynthia Ferraz.

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