Education Connection was piloted in Leander ISD to combat literacy with a desire to have every child reading by the time they exit third grade. According to Education Connection organizers, research has identified third grade literacy as one of four systemic problems facing the community. A child who is reading behind grade level at the end of third grade is cited to have an unpromising academic future.
“From kindergarten to third grade a child learns to read,” Amy Hagen, Education Connection’s executive director, said. “From third grade on, a child reads to learn.”
According to Hagen, the nonprofit came into existence after the Christ Together Greater Austin leaders wondered how they could help out in the community.
“They wanted to figure out the best way to serve the city,” she said.
They decided the best way to do so would be through a mentor partnership, which consists of committing to read to a child for 30 minutes, once a week.
Starting during the 2010-11 school year, Education Connection started at Naumann Elementary with 45 volunteers reading, mentoring and working on math skills with 90 students. Over time, the number of students and volunteers grew. Schools throughout Leander ISD were all participating after a while, and other school districts started jumping on board.
“In Education Connections’ fifth school year, we grew to being in 28 schools, three school districts and having 401 volunteers, serving over 800 elementary students,” Hagen said.
This school year, Education Connection has 834 Literacy Partner volunteers serving over 1,700 elementary students, in 69 schools, in eight school districts.
“It’s a lofty goal, but we are striving for 1,000 next school year,” Hagen said.
With more than 200 elementary schools located in the Austin area, the need to reach every at-risk child is great. Students are referred to the program by teachers, typically based on benchmark results.
“Parents will often thank the teacher for noticing their child needs help,” Hagen said. “After time they will say how fast their child has started reading and how excited they are to read.”
Sometimes, a student might be reading on the appropriate level, but alone in the reading process. According to Hagen, these students still need a reading partner.
“They might just need someone to sit down and read with them if they aren’t getting that at home,” she said.
As a faith-based community, Education Connection has the chance to partner a church with each school, reading to children one-on-one, while supporting educators as they help children to learn and grow.
“We are very aware of the separation of church and state here,” Hagen said. “This is really just about being able to serve the community.”
More specifically, volunteers are not bringing religious perspectives into the literacy work.
“I hear time and time again that they (volunteers) thought the students would get the most out of it, but really, they do,” Hagen said.
Education Connection is currently recruiting for Literacy Partners in Leander, Austin, Del Valle, Lake Travis, Liberty Hill, Manor, Pflugerville and Round Rock ISDs. Those interested in reading with students can call 512-813-5918 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hagen noted there is a short training process to endure. Volunteers will be screened through an online background test and there is an hour-long video to watch.
“We’re really trying to move that literacy needle,” she said.