Lead to Read volunteers read with students April 13 at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri.
Lead to Read volunteers read with students April 13 at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

On a Wednesday in early April, a class of second graders lined a hallway in Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, each student sitting with a volunteer. 

One pair discussed life in the Arctic. The student said he wouldn’t want to live somewhere so cold. “But I would like to get one of the cubs,” he added, pointing at a picture of polar bears. 

Across the hall, a girl crouched against the wall, smiling shyly as a volunteer told her she was too advanced for the book she had chosen and steered the discussion toward how the story used rhyme and alliteration. 

Further down the hall, a mentor guided a student through “The Lorax,” assuring him she understood it was a challenge to read some of Dr. Seuss’ “words that aren’t words.” 

The pairs were meeting as part of Lead to Read KC, a nonprofit that works with schools across the Kansas City area to boost students’ reading and social-emotional skills.

Citing research showing long-term negative consequences for students who can’t read proficiently by third grade, the program focuses on kindergartners through third graders. 

Phillis Wheatley is one of 18 schools in the mentoring program, which launched in 2011 and is serving 568 students this year.   

A program evaluation has found concrete impacts on students’ reading abilities, as well as evidence their attitudes toward reading have improved. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lead to Read has added virtual options and expanded to facilitate a tutoring program. 

The nonprofit also provides books to children, including through the Reading is Everywhere program, and runs an author visit program focused on mental health. 

“I think that it takes all of Kansas City to step up and become engaged in our educational system, because these are the future workforce in our community,” said Pauly Hart, Lead to Read’s executive director.

Hart said the program takes volunteers into “spaces that they normally don’t have a chance to go into.” 

“We provide them an organized, safe, productive way to come into the school,” she said. “And as soon as they get here, it dispels myths, it opens their eyes, it opens their hearts, and they see the good work that’s going on and the beautiful kids who are here learning.”

Lead to Read’s results have been positive  

Many of the 29 classrooms the program serves are in Kansas City Public Schools and area charter schools, with a few in Center School District and Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. That’s down from 52 classrooms before the pandemic, Hart said, though she’s hoping the program will soon expand again.

Program volunteers, often recruited from nearby businesses, meet with the same student for 30 minutes around midday each week so the commitment can be manageable around a work lunch break.    

It costs Lead to Read about $5,000 per classroom each year to run the mentoring program, but Hart doesn’t want funding to be a barrier for any school.

The nonprofit is working to find ways for schools to contribute to the costs, such as by including Lead to Read in grant applications or using federal stimulus funds. 

Morgan McGrath, a second grade teacher whose class at Phillis Wheatley participates in the program, said Lead to Read helps support her goals, like focusing on students reading nonfiction books to reinforce a unit in class. 

A Lead to Read volunteer reads with a student April 13 at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. Mentors come to the school for 30 minutes each week to help students practice reading and gain social-emotional skills. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Hart said making mentoring simple for schools to implement is a goal of the program, which works with whole classes instead of pulling aside students who need extra help. 

McGrath said the biggest change she’s seen since adding Lead to Read is “engagement, which ultimately, I think, leads to better reading achievement … excitement about books or reading has been definitely increased over years past.”

A 2018-2020 program evaluation conducted with the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Urban Education Research Center found 92% of mentors and 98% of teachers thought the program had a positive impact. 

Several measures of first grade student reading abilities also improved more quickly than those of the “control group” who didn’t participate in Lead to Read. 

Second graders’ scores in most measures didn’t show significant differences when compared to the control group, though they did improve more at recognizing “sight words” — common words educators encourage students to memorize rather than sounding them out

Tutoring helps students catch up after pandemic

To provide more targeted help to students who are behind after they lost learning time during the pandemic, Lead to Read has been offering remote tutoring through Hoot Reading. 

Hart said the schools pay for the tutoring program, which is managed entirely by Lead to Read and doesn’t require any additional school resources. Six schools currently participate. 

Belicia, a sixth grader in Lead to Read’s tutoring program at Phillis Wheatley, told The Beacon she’s getting better at reading and sounding out words, and her relationship with her tutor has helped her improve at “not being shy.” 

Marlon Edwards, a vice principal at Wheatley, said KCPS has dedicated federal COVID relief funds — which can be used to help students recover academically from the pandemic — to the tutoring program. 

He said the school has seen “tremendous growth” in students who participated in previous six-week sessions, which happen during the school day. It’s more manageable than having to find teachers willing to tutor for extra pay and students who can arrive early or stay after school for the sessions. 

According to a Lead to Read info sheet, which does not include data from current tutoring sessions, 237 children have participated in the tutoring program and 98% saw their reading improve. Thirty percent improved two to five levels in the Fountas and Pinnell reading curriculum. 

Lead to Read encourages relationships

Phillis Wheatley is one of five schools that currently have in-person volunteers. 

Many Lead to Read volunteers are recruited through nearby workplaces, but anyone can apply to read weekly, alternate with another volunteer or pitch in as a “flextra” who fills in for mentors who have to miss a week. 

Natalie Pearson, an employee of HOK, said she’s worked to recruit colleagues, telling them how much she has enjoyed her five years of volunteer experience. 

Lead to Read volunteer Natalie Pearson reads a book with Barbara, a second grader at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, on April 13 in Kansas City, Missouri. Pearson likes to get to know her mentees by talking about topics such as animals and siblings. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Volunteers’ main task is to practice reading with the students, but detours into other topics are encouraged as a way to build relationships. 

Pearson said she often tries to break the ice with students by talking about animals.

The program “reaches more than literacy and reading,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just somebody to talk to, a trusted, safe adult.” 

Hope Leadership Academy is one of the schools still doing virtual mentoring. Katie Kropp, a second grade teacher at the charter school, said it’s been a bit more difficult for students to build connections virtually, but she thinks the program is helpful no matter the format. 

For “the kiddos who don’t always enjoy reading, to have somebody there to listen to them individually really encourages them to read,” she said. “It gives them extra practice and makes it meaningful for them.”

“I try to make reading fun, and try to instill the passion for reading in the students that I work with,” said Mark Myers, who originally learned about Lead to Read at work and has been a mentor for several years. “But I get so much perspective from them and a real joy from working with them.”

He’s been reading with King, a 9-year-old second grader at Hope Leadership Academy. King said Myers is “really nice” and helps him improve his reading by encouraging him to sound out difficult words instead of immediately telling him what they are. 

While he likes to read on his own, “the greatest books that I think that is cool, I try to wait until he gets on (the app) to read it with him,” King said. 

Volunteer Trae Q.L. Venerable reads with a student. Venerable is an engineer and children’s book author who writes about Black cowboys. He said he hopes his presence helps the students he mentors “see themselves” in professional fields as they think about their futures. (Christian Sauerman/Lead to Read)

Trae Q.L. Venerable, a volunteer who works as an engineer and writes children’s books about Black cowboys, said that being a person of color helps the students he mentors at Phillis Wheatley “see themselves” in various professional fields. 

“My heart is for childhood literacy,” he said, “but then it stems out to other things” such as life, family, school and “what do you want to be when you grow up? What paths can you take, what steps can we work towards to get there? Because you know, first, second and third (grade) is really not that far away from junior high and high school and then on into adulthood.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.