Nov 20, 2023 - News

A program that teaches Arizona kids to read is diversifying the teacher pipeline

Illustration of a green apple surrounded by red apples.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Twenty young men of color are tutoring in Mesa and Glendale pre-K classrooms to ensure Black and Latino students from low-income households have the best shot at long-term achievement.

Why it matters: Learning to read and write at a young age is one indicator of whether a student will succeed.

Yes, but: The program is as much about the tutors as it is the students. The organization behind the effort is trying to create a pipeline of diverse educators.

  • Minority students who have a teacher with the same race or ethnicity in elementary school are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, multiple studies have shown.
  • One analysis found that Black male students from very low-income households were 39% less likely to drop out if they had at least one Black teacher in elementary school.

Reality check: Only 6% of U.S. K-12 public school teachers in 2021 were Black, and 9% were Hispanic, per the National Center for Education Statistics.

How it works: The Leading Men Fellowship — a program from Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Literacy Lab — trains 18- to 24-year-olds in early literacy techniques and deploys them to Title I classrooms, where a majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

  • They're in the classroom four days a week, working with 4- and 5-year-olds on name writing, reading, rhyming and other developmental literacy skills.

Zoom in: The fellowship recruits young men of color who are not currently enrolled in college and may not have ever considered an education career.

  • In addition to preparing them to work in the classroom with 240 hours of literacy training, the program provides mentorship, personal and career coaching.
  • "Our goal is to develop men that are positive pillars in their community while giving them an alternative career path (in education)," Literacy Lab's Arizona coordinator Navarro Whitaker told us.

The intrigue: The fellows pass along those skills to preschoolers they work with. Kamen Antoine Jones — Mr. K to his students — told us the relationships he builds in the classroom are possibly more important than the literacy skills.

  • Jones, who turned 22 earlier this month, told us he used to be quiet, reserved and uncomfortable in professional settings. His mentors at Literacy Lab helped him thrive and build confidence, he said.
  • Now he's establishing trust with each of the children in his class and encouraging them to find their own voices.

What they're saying: "It pulled me out of my comfort zone. It made me realize who I was as a person and that my voice matters. The kids make you feel heard," Jones told Axios Phoenix.

What's next: At the end of the program, Literacy Lab helps find scholarships and opportunities for fellows who decide they want to pursue careers in education.

  • Last year, almost all of them continued on the education path, Whitaker said.

Parting shot: "Honestly, if Mr. K doesn't go into education, it would be a shame for society. He is so good with the kids," said pre-K teacher Victoria Willingham, whose classroom Jones works in.

Of note: The program has been immensely popular with teachers. Last year, the fellowship's first in Arizona, three schools participated. Now, the fellows are in 20 classrooms across five schools.

  • Christy Discello, the preschool coordinator at Desert Garden in Glendale, told us her colleagues are eager to expand the program to their classrooms next year.

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