Community collaborations encourage literacy with early-stage reading and library programs

The Literacy Center of West Michigan’s Community Literacy Initiative aims to empower parents, caregivers and leaders with accessible tools and resources to improve literacy for all ages across the area. Partnering with local organizations, area schools and district libraries, the Community Literacy Initiative develops and implements goals and strategies to improve literacy utilizing inclusive methods.

The Literacy Center of West Michigan offers many different programs to foster and sustain a just and vibrant West Michigan through literacy. With over 300 volunteer tutors, and nearly 800 learners each year, The Literacy Center offers family literacy programs, adult tutoring, customized workplace English, and the Community Literacy Initiative (CLI) in schools, district libraries and other partnering organizations. 

“My program, the CLI, is the only non-direct service program,” says the Director of Community Literacy Initiative, Mike Nassar. “I facilitate a coalition of literacy providers; we’re working with schools, libraries and other literacy providers. I bring those folks together and together, we develop goals and strategies and implement ideas to improve literacy.”

CLI began in 2011, inspired by work with former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell,Dr. Juan Olivarez and the Greater Grand Rapids Reads program. “That program evolved over time, and it evolved into CLI. CLI has gone through some changes over the nine years. Where we are now is to convene key leaders in our community and try to drive the work on literacy.”

One aspect of the Initiative is their partnership with local libraries and the Partners in Reading Success group, which has been meeting monthly since 2016. The diverse committee includes representatives from Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kent School Services Network, Kent District Library, and the Michigan Education Corps. Much of their recent work has focused on leveraging support for the third grade reading level legislation, which states that students who are not proficient readers by third grade can be retained or held back. In 2015-2016, less than half of Michigan third graders received a passing score on the M-Step reading portion. To help combat this issue, CLI has put many various resources in place at local schools, stocking their school library shelves, developing individual reading plans, and working collaboratively with district libraries to equip parents and children alike. One of these strategies implemented is the individual reading improvement plan.

“We trained all of the librarians at Kent District Library and Grand Rapids Public Library in an understanding of the third grade reading legislation,” Nassar says. “We talked to them about the basic elements of reading, awareness, phonics and cataract fluency.” Library staff also learned about strategies to help parents when they visited, developing projects like activity bags and booster packs of support materials available for checkout, which assist in children’s Individual Reading Improvement Plans. “The idea is by using resources in the community … we not only empower the children, but we really empower the families,” Nassar says. “What we’re trying to do is give the adults and caregivers tools, and resources and access to resources that enable them to better support their children.”

“We worked together to develop a program called Mission: READ!,” Nassar says. “[That] program empowers students to read for 1000 days, which is a long-term reading project to increase the volume of reading.” The program began January 2019 and is featured at Grand Rapids Public Library and Kent District Library, with thousands of kids on-target to read the full 1000-day period goal. Readers can earn various small prizes along the way, after 100 days, and 500 days of reading. Once finished, Nassar says the participants will be given a Kindle. 

Five years after forming the Partners in Reading Success Group, the latest pilot, the library school program, was launched. The Family Literacy Program of the Literacy Center conducted four focus group listening sessions with parents/caregivers, combined with feedback from listening sessions at Burton Elementary, Sibley Elementary, Godfrey-Lee, and Kelloggsville sites in fall 2019.

Creating and stocking libraries with donated materials within these intermediate schools, the goal is to meet students where they are and where they feel comfortable. It’s also about accessibility, since some children don’t have the transportation or resources to travel to the library, unless it's located inside their school. The schools have already noticed a positive impact thanks to the interconnected relationship between schools and libraries. 

“We are in the early stages of making the library a stronger extension of out-of-school learning. It starts with making the library more visible and accessible to our parents,” says Community School Coordinator at Sibley Elementary, Sara Scott. “Through our partnership this past year, library staff has become more recognizable to parents. It’s been great to hear about parents connecting to opportunities right here in their neighborhood. I’m looking forward to what will come from continuing this partnership.”

“The impact of this partnership has built the foundation of the library’s importance in the community,” says Keith Caterino, Kelloggsville Public Schools’ K-12 media specialist. “We [KPS] have had a renewed focus on how our daily actions in the media centers directly impact our students. We’ve found ways to engage the community through outreach, book donations and improved services. In addition, we’ve become keenly aware of how students in our district [need] resources and we are working toward meeting those needs.”

Over the past year, those needs have increased for many students who do not have the same resources they had at school and are now being taught in their homes. Much like other industries have been forced to shift their services and provide a digital version, so too has the Literacy Center and the Initiative’s programming. “We’re really trying to help the libraries and schools think differently and strategically about how to redesign some of the work they do,” Nassar says. “Kent District Library Kelloggsville has a branch library within their school, so now they have all their signage printed in both English and Spanish. Previously, it was just English. In 2021, KDL is planning a system-wide update to include Spanish on all their signage.”

These changes reflect 2019 data from focus groups with predominantly non-English speaking groups. Results showed that many parents and children want access to library resources, but did not feel heard, seen, included, or represented in their local libraries. “We found out those folks wanted access, they wanted to feel comfortable, feel welcome, and to see signage in their own language. They just wanted to hear the library was a place they could go and feel safe. 

Nassar’s professional background includes over 30 years in education, as both a teacher and a principal. Over the past three decades, something that has really stood out to him as a big national challenge is “the lack of equity in achievement,” an issue the Initiative is working hard at remedying.

“If you look at third grade reading proficiency in our county, you’ll find our subgroups, whether they be Hispanic children or African American or children of color, are scoring significantly lower than other children, especially the majority group, which is Caucasian children,” Nassar says. “This whole idea of lack of educational achievement is a big challenge.”

Unfortunately, that ‘big challenge’ has become even more challenging in the increased online environment of schools, due to the pandemic. “Not everybody has equitable access to the internet, technology, iPads or computers,” Nassar says. “The concern is that these problems get exacerbated in these current conditions.”

With March as National Reading Month, the programming has traditionally been done with physical hard-copy books. This year, partnering organizations are looking into virtual options with e-readers, which is most likely “the future of reading,” Nassar says, “as we move more toward technology, electronic resources and away from physical resources like paper, pencils, books and trees.”

The Literacy Center and CLI accept new book donations to stock school libraries and are especially in need of stories that feature inclusivity in their characters. It’s important that school age children see characters who look like them, “especially those that represent Black and brown children, and minority children,” Nassar says. The Literacy Center is also always looking for adults interested in becoming tutors for other adults. Virtual training is provided, and tutoring is offered on a digital platform currently. To learn about tutoring, visit the ‘Volunteer’ tab on their website, and fill out a volunteer interest form or call 616-459-5151. To learn more about donations, visit the 'Give' tab on their website, or contact Development Director Libby Crabb Wahlstrom at 616.459.5151 ext.19 or [email protected]

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library.

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]