Choosing a career when you’re 8-years-old might seem like a daunting task at the least, if not an out-and-out impossibility. But a new partnership between Read Better Be Better (RBBB) and Helios Education Foundation aims to support students in discovering their professional paths from their elementary school years to young adulthood.
Since the organization’s inception five years ago, RBBB has facilitated after-school programming to improve the literacy and learning skills of its participating 2nd-4th grade students, called Readers. A key component of the program is the middle school students who volunteer to work with the Readers. Known as Leaders, these students not only learn how to implement RBBB’s reading comprehension curriculum to assist their partner Readers, but they receive valuable training in developing their leadership skills.
An expansion of that leadership development is now the focus of a three-year, $450,000 grant from Helios to be used in the Peoria Unified School District (PUSD), the fourth largest district in Arizona. The goal is to create a sustainable system that empowers students to pursue their educational and leadership potential from childhood to young adulthood.
“Our collaboration with Helios focuses on youth empowerment – building towards systemic change from within the community,” says Sophie Allen-Etchart, CEO and founder of RBBB.
“Helios Education Foundation is proud to partner with Read Better Be Better on this initiative,” said Michelle Conroy, Director of Early Grade Success Initiatives at Helios. “Read Better Be Better delivers outstanding outcomes in increasing literacy achievement among the students it works with and we look forward to the expansion of their work through the Peoria Unified School District.”
A professional pathway has always informally existed within RBBB’s program with many Readers becoming Leaders once they reach middle school. But RBBB and Helios are now implementing intentional elements of programming with the middle-schoolers as well as incorporating strategies to keep engaging them as they continue through high school. The Helios grant provides funding to build out training for students in leadership, advocacy and self-actualization that will create a more educated and engaged workforce within the district.
“It’s going to be very exciting to watch our students progress through each phase of this new path,” says Lisa Taylor, an RBBB District Leader who is developing the expanded leadership training.
The program has three distinct stages. The first is an organized effort to encourage Readers at the 10 participating Title 1 schools in PUSD, and beyond, to return to the RBBB program as middle school volunteer Leaders, helping younger students to improve their reading comprehension as their Leaders did with them. RBBB Leaders receive continual training to develop leadership skills, understand education issues in Arizona—including the chronic teacher shortage and ongoing literacy crisis—as well as explore their interests and potential.
“I wanted to give back what I got from the program and pass along the same help that my Leader showed me,” explains Christopher Ruiz, a former Whittier Elementary School student who, in 2019, was one of the first former RBBB Readers to become Leaders. Research shows that service-learning opportunities like RBBB’s that place students in a role of responsibility and accountability result in better school attendance and higher academic achievement, not to mention the positive impact they can make in another person’s life.
Second, RBBB will maintain contact with the former Leaders during high school and recruit them to come back to their school districts as college-age RBBB Program Coaches to facilitate the after-school sessions for Readers and Leaders. Program Coaches are paid a competitive hourly wage and provided regular professional development training. The Program Coach positions supply real world education and classroom management experiences that are relevant for future employment opportunities. And, because the Program Coaches were once themselves Readers and Leaders in the district, they bring a deeper understanding of the program and a commitment to their students and the community.
Jael Echeveste is RBBB’s first Leader to become a Program Coach. She joined RBBB when she was a student at Avondale Middle School. Her motivation to continue working with the program stems from her belief in the power of literacy, knowledge, and education. “My parents always told me that if you could understand what you read, you can do anything. It hurts to know that many children, teens, and even adults could not understand texts past a certain reading level. Reading, something I considered the most important skill to have, was not as common of a skill as I thought,” she says. “I was a Leader from seventh to eighth grade and became a student ambassador my freshman year of high school. Read Better Be Better is an organization that will always be in my heart and one that I would do anything for.”
Finally, national research shows that the education field is one of the most highly localized occupations. In fact, a study by researchers in Washington state found that more than 50% of first teaching jobs are within 25 miles of where the teachers grew up. And while there are a number of excellent grow-your-own teacher programs in Arizona, none begin building the professional pipeline at the elementary school level as RBBB and Helios are doing.
The partners’ long-term vision is that, because of students’ past experiences with RBBB, their recognition of the importance of education, their understanding of their own potential and abilities as leaders in their communities, and the relevant networks that they have developed within the PUSD during the prior 14 years, Program Coaches will further commit to their community by pursuing the field of education and seeking employment in the Peoria district once they graduate.
“Literacy is a critical academic skill and Read Better Be Better’s innovative approach to helping increase literacy skills is helping students throughout our community,” said Vince Yanez, Senior Vice President of Arizona Community Engagement at Helios Education Foundation. “The partnership between Read Better Be Better and the Peoria School District will help reach even more students and set them on the path toward greater academic achievement.”
The Helios grant began in 2020 but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools throughout the state, RBBB programming was held in homes with older family members serving as Leaders for their younger Readers. Program Coaches checked in with caregivers from these families once a week.
“We were able to provide a connection for families during the pandemic that was really strong, as well as provide resources to a brand-new district that we have never held programming in before,” says Alex Peck, District Leader for PUSD. “We had many caregivers from the fall ask to repeat the program and they expressed that their children greatly benefitted from RBBB.”
“This year there were more than 500 Literacy Kits distributed by Read Better Be Better, which have been very beneficial to students,” said Dr. Kendra Bell, PUSD Chief of Academic Services. “Peoria Unified is looking forward to the next school year when we will expand the program to ten schools across the district and offer an after-school option for the program.”
Ethen, a Leader from Copperwood Elementary School in PUSD, is an example of how leadership can flourish anywhere including, and perhaps especially, at home. During the fall semester, he worked with his younger sister, Grace. “It was beautiful to see Ethen become more patient with Grace and light up when he had the chance to tell her what a word meant or ask her questions to enhance her understanding,” says caregiver Karin Kary. “Overall, it was a great experience that they will always remember.”
Which are big, wonderful first steps on a very promising pathway.