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It takes a village to support early literacy

It takes a village to support early literacy

By Yolanda Knight
February 22, 2021

Our recent documentary, It Takes A Village: How Community Organizations, Schools, and Families Can Work Together to Support Early Childhood Literacy, features the Steans Family Foundation in Chicago, among other programs. REL Midwest asked Yolanda Knight, program director at the Steans Family Foundation, to share more information about North Lawndale READS, an initiative funded by the Foundation. In this post, Knight outlines the essential components of the North Lawndale READS program as an example of what equitable access to learning can look like in the context of early literacy.

The Steans Family Foundation in Chicago offers place-based grantmaking in the North Lawndale community. This neighborhood has a rich cultural and political history. Although rates of unemployment, poverty, and gun violence are high, North Lawndale residents and workers maintain a proud legacy of resilience and social activism.

In 2015, the Steans Family Foundation sought to significantly increase the percentage of children in the North Lawndale neighborhood who read proficiently by grade 3, a critical milestone for future academic success. The initiative was planned in collaboration with school principals, community leaders, and neighborhood residents, and their voices were clear: While all students need literacy-rich classroom environments and consistent, high-quality instruction to reach literacy goals, North Lawndale students need more. Because literacy development occurs within and is influenced by home, school, and neighborhood contexts, a holistic approach to grade 3 reading was required.

With this guidance from community members, the Foundation launched North Lawndale READS (NL READS), a comprehensive approach to early literacy achievement. We galvanized around the common goals of facilitating—and removing barriers to—grade-level reading achievement, and we have seen substantial literacy growth among the students served by our teachers and community partners.

North Lawndale READS’ school and community partnerships

School and community partnerships have been essential to the success of the NL READS initiative. Here are a few examples of these partnerships, organized by the types of support they provide:

  • Student academic supports. Children’s Literacy Initiative, our teacher professional development partner, agreed to take on an entirely new scope of work, delivering literacy intervention services four days per week to those students who were farthest behind grade level. AARP Experience Corps also offers tutoring services to groups of students who fall only slightly below grade level.
  • Social and emotional supports. Juvenile Protective Association (JPA) provides individual and small-group counseling to kindergarten through grade 3 students who exhibit social, emotional, and behavioral challenges stemming from traumatic family histories or neighborhood events. JPA provides individual and small-group therapy to children in grades K–3 and holds social-emotional learning consultations for school leaders and teachers.
  • Family engagement supports. Our partner Turning the Page (TTP) hosts community nights at which staff, teachers, children’s book authors, and parents discuss strategies to support students’ literacy development. By modeling reading interactions and distributing books, these community nights equip parents with tools to read with their children at home. In addition, TTP has created a unique 1:1 parent coaching model that seeks to understand the unique circumstances of each parent’s home life. Its staff then coaches parents to establish schedules and routines that integrate daily reading time.
  • Summer enrichment. NL READS launched a high-quality K–3 summer learning program in order to mitigate summer learning loss and build the background and conceptual knowledge that increases academic language, vocabulary, and comprehension. The program hires teachers and college students from the North Lawndale community and partners with Project Exploration and the University of Chicago STEM Education Initiative to deliver full-day, highly engaging literacy, math, and STEM enrichment during the summer.

NL READS’ comprehensive model was well-designed for a crisis, as all systems should be. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, several supports were already in place to help schools and families pivot to remote learning and cope with the devastating losses resulting from the pandemic.

What the pursuit of equity looks like: Persistence, iteration, and collaboration

On average, NL READS students who have received community partner services have met reading growth benchmarks at higher rates than their peers. In addition, growth in the percentage of students reading at grade level after five years surpassed the district and other comparison groups. Still, there is a long way to go. NL READS students often enter kindergarten so far behind that even as they meet and exceed growth benchmarks, it takes years for them to catch up to grade level.

To address this challenge, in spring 2021, NL READS is launching a community-wide messaging campaign for parents of children ages 0–5. The goal is to increase at-home literacy activities for these youngest learners to prepare them to meet kindergarten readiness reading benchmarks. NL READS has invited community businesses, such as Bobby Price’s Principles Barbershop, Wintrust Bank, Carole Robertson Early Childhood Center for Learning, and the Lawndale Christian Health Center, to take leading roles in building a collaborative culture of literacy throughout the North Lawndale community. Organized in partnership with Open Books, NL READS campaign partners will share messages about early reading at home, install book nooks at partner sites, produce videos that model reading and brain-building activities, and host book talks on a range of relevant topics. By messaging the importance of both reading with children and reading in the community, we hope the campaign will increase the number of adult reading role models and champions in North Lawndale while also connecting literacy to social and political activism that will strengthen the neighborhood.

We at the Steans Family Foundation encourage community organizations, legislators, foundations, and school and district leaders to mirror the comprehensive strategies implemented through NL READS in supporting their most vulnerable communities. NL READS is what equity looks like. It takes a village for every child’s success, but in our most vulnerable communities, village members must meet up and work together at many different intersections to support achievement that lasts.

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Author information

Yolanda Knight Picture

Yolanda Knight

Program Director | Steans Family Foundation


Beating the odds (2)

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (42)

Data Use (32)

Discipline (4)

Early Childhood (31)

Educator Effectiveness (36)

English Learners (10)

Literacy (11)

Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Research Tools (2)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (24)

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