Local programs are on a mission to raise Metro Detroit reading and writing rates one book at a time.
By Mary Meldrum
Photography by Sylvia Jarrus
For a lot of children, reading habits begin in early childhood. Yet for many children in Metro Detroit, they enter kindergarten without ever having owned a book or hearing a bedtime story. Children who cannot read are ashamed of their minds. They begin to believe they are not smart or capable of reading, and they can grow into adults who cannot read.
Illiteracy is particularly prevalent in Detroit. The 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress — an exam given to students in each state — reports reading levels for fourth- and eighth-grade Detroit students are the lowest in the nation.
The issues that factor into the literacy rates are complicated and have persisted over generations.
Yet, there are several passionate and motivated people in Metro Detroit who are tackling the problem.
West Bloomfield resident Sangeeta Shah, 49, is an attorney at intellectual property firm Brooks Kushman. Her Southfield-based practice includes all aspects of intellectual property litigation, prosecution and counseling.
“Everyone has a finite amount of time, so I do the most significant thing I can with my allotted time,” Shah says.
Shah created Retooling Detroit and leads a dedicated group of adult volunteers who teach Detroit schoolchildren to read. They work in kindergarten through third grade at Schulze Academy for Technology in the Bagley neighborhood.
Shah’s inspiration for Retooling Detroit came in 2012 when she learned Detroit had a 47 percent illiteracy rate.
“I was aghast that illiteracy of that magnitude could happen in the U.S.,” Shah says. “You can’t even get fast-food jobs without a GED. Welfare rolls, juvenile delinquency, dropout rates and prison inmate populations all have their roots in literacy.”
Retooling Detroit focuses on the bottom-performing two-thirds of each class — children who need a little more reading guidance. These are students struggling and at risk of being held back or failing out of the educational system early.
Retooling Detroit results are encouraging. Every student in the bottom-third of the class improves 50 percent to 250 percent within a year. Some of these children catch up and are on pace with their classmates within one year, according to Shah.
Shah says she’s been asked by Detroit Public Schools Community District to expand her program to the six lowest-performing schools in DPSCD. To make that happen, she estimates they need approximately 50 volunteers per school.
Recently, Retooling Detroit partnered with a company called TutorMate that has software that tracks literacy levels. This allows remote volunteers to log in, connect with a student and work on their reading skills.
Shah has recruited corporate employers to sponsor a classroom using the TutorMate software. Employee volunteers can log in to Skype twice a week to work with students from their desk.
Approximately 300 Detroit students have benefited from Retooling Detroit’s efforts since its inception.
Retooling Detroit Needs:
Shah needs corporate sponsors and “boots on the ground” volunteers to go into schools and tutor children.
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Jack and Annette Aronson, the founders of Garden Fresh Gourmet in Ferndale, remember job applicants bringing a friend or relative because they could not read the application form. That stuck with Jack.
Since selling their business to Campbell Soup Company, the Aronsons are focusing a lot of their time, money and energy on local literacy.
“You want to stop crime? Teach everyone to read,” says Jack, 64.
The Aronsons, who reside in Bloomfield Hills, launched the Ferndale Literacy Project in fall 2016. Embedded inside Ferndale High School, the project aims to improve reading levels of students behind the grade-level pace. Results for the inaugural year showed that the 50 students enrolled improved two to three reading levels. The 2017 school year reports even better results.
With success in Ferndale, the Aronsons wasted little time replicating the literacy model in Hazel Park High School. The Hazel Park Literacy Project enrolled its first 100 students last fall.
The goal, the Aronsons say, is to set up a literacy project in every Detroit high school.
Ferndale and Hazel Park Literacy Projects Needs:
“As we expand into the Detroit area, we need money, media exposure, volunteers and corporate sponsors,” Jack Aronson says. “We want companies to sponsor schools, like a competition.”
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The StoryTellers Guild was formed in 1992. Guild members travel to underserved schools and read books to elementary students. StoryTellers are active in three counties, 21 underserved schools and Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital. They serve about 3,000 children. Members promote literacy and donate hundreds of books to classrooms and libraries every year.
Co-chair Linda Lambert, 72, of Beverly Hills, is retired after teaching kindergarten to fifth grade for 34 years in Dearborn Heights. Lambert joined the Guild in 2008 and is now a StoryTeller in Oak Park schools. “I love it,” she says, “but I am shocked at how few traditional stories the children know.”
Lambert says the literacy problem is widespread, and there is great need for support in the Detroit area.
“We have a meeting at Book Beat in October, and the owners share the latest and greatest in new children’s literature,” Lambert says. The Book Beat bookstore on Greenfield Road in
Oak Park, a longtime supporter of the StoryTellers Guild, gives the group a 20 percent discount on books.
StoryTellers Guild Needs:
The Guild is looking for more members as well as a publicity chair to create and launch a social media and digital marketing presence.
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Many people around Detroit recognize Kim Kozlowski as the higher education reporter for The Detroit News. But she’s also known for Detroit Little Libraries, her grassroots effort to bring Detroit neighborhoods a Little Free Library.
Kozlowski, 51, grew up in Allen Park, and through her journalism work, came to realize that illiteracy is a disability that severely limits a person’s potential.
“Many studies show that there are incredible benefits when you learn to love to read,” says Kozlowski, a Ferndale resident. “It can change the path of your life.”
Kozlowski looks at her Detroit Little Libraries as supplements to Detroit Public Libraries. When she started, her goal was to establish 313 Little Libraries — a number that matches the area code of the city. To date, over 300 have been installed throughout Detroit.
Kozlowski’s campaign is made possible by individual donors, grassroots fundraising and sweat equity. Each Little Library also gets a steward who stocks it with books and cares for it.
Detroit Little Libraries Needs:
Detroit Little Libraries needs technical help updating the online map and building an app. They also need help repairing existing libraries and funding.