The success of a Nashville, Tennessee summer literacy program for at-risk children may be measured by figures, or by the delighted expressions and the number of high-fives offered community volunteers like Jennifer Weinberg. She knew her hour-a-visit efforts to read with children were making headway by the second week. While the East Nashville Hope Exchange (ENHE) that runs the intensive six-week program offers some heady statistics, it was the excitement as Weinberg arrived for another round of “Reading Buddies” that most tugged at her heart.

        “I really get excited to see them excited,” says Weinberg, who is also on ENHE’s board. “They are more likely to graduate if they’re reading at level by third grade, which leads to jobs and involvement in the community. Reading is fundamental for everybody. The piece of the puzzle that makes our program such a success is having family support. That is critical.”

        Spot on, according to the Center for Public Education. An engaged family – parents or grandparents or other relatives who read to and with their children statistically bolsters student success, according to the CPE’s information on literacy. ENHE families enter daily reading at home into logs. Each week, they attend meetings where officials unpack a literacy toolbox to aid parents in teaching comprehension and other reading skills, such as games that are included online, too. And as of 2013, the children are sent home with a new book each day. Last year, each child accumulated a library of 28 books.

        ENHE began as a community outreach program of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church almost 15 years ago. As a nonprofit, ENHE manages a year-around literacy program in addition to the summer program, which strives to at least maintain the reading level of a child attained during the school year. It now serves rising kindergarten to fourth graders who are deemed at risk – they live within low-income families or they may be struggling as a reader. ENHE targets schools in the Stratford and Maplewood clusters of East Nashville, with school officials helping to identify students in need of services. Many area students don’t read at grade level, says Ameshica Linsey, ENHE’s executive director. Without practice, their skill level declines during the summer, a further setback. The decline in summer skills is most profound among children of low-income families, Linsey says, and is part of the achievement gap that ENHE is on a mission to address.

Photo by Antonio Fajardo

        About 100 children each summer enroll into the ENHE program. Bonnie Bogen, a volunteer and staff member who works within the community to promote ENHE efforts, learned of one “graduate” of the summer program who was part of an Hispanic family. His parents, who were enrolling a younger child, didn’t speak much English, and he hadn’t initially, either, but his parents were able to communicate their pride clearly. He was doing so well in school that he qualified for a college scholarship. They credited the immersion of the ENHE program. “You see these kinds of things happening that are amazing,” says Bogen.

        While the anecdotal evidence is compelling, ENHE touts extensive statistics on its web page. In 2017, 98 percent of students either maintained or gained in at least three areas of reading assessment. (Children are assessed at the beginning of the program and at the end to measure progress.) Almost all family members reported being better able to help their children read because of the program, and 79 percent of families read with their kids.

        At one time, the ENHE summer program served only 42 students. The program has been expanding, and officials expect to serve other areas of Nashville eventually.

        “We have way more students trying to get into the program than we can serve,” says Linsey. “Parents call me in January trying to get [their children] into the program.”

        A former classroom teacher, Linsey took principal preparatory coursework to get into leadership and then decided to work in a nonprofit environment. As a child, she was the student everyone knew would end up being a teacher. Her aunts were teachers. She loved education. She loved reading and came to understand its life-changing power. “I knew reading was the key to success because if you can’t read, you can’t do math problems, you can’t do science problems. I knew the weight reading carries.”

        According to the CPE, children who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade face daunting hurdles to success, not only in school but as adults. They rarely catch up, and are four times more likely to drop out of high school, resulting in lower earning power. Aware of the “tons of statistics out there,” Jennifer Weinberg pointed to one fact: The kids interfacing with juvenile authorities are more likely to be functionally illiterate. Their lack of proficiency in reading leads to reduced job prospects. Literacy is tied to healthier lifestyles, lower crime rates and reduced overall social costs, according to CPE.

Photo by Antonio Fajardo

        ENHE’s summer program is at the Ross Early Learning and at Episcopal School of Nashville each weekday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 4 through July 13.

        While reading is a key component of the summer program, literacy is more complex than opening a book and pronouncing words. ENHE complements reading instruction with things like field trips and guest readers who broaden children’s exposure to their communities. Students learn through word games, crafts and art that entertain and teach. This year, ENHE employs 22 staff members, including certified teachers who lead small groups in reading skills instruction at a child’s specific level. More than 150 volunteers assist, including Weinberg.

        Weinberg didn’t have an education background. Hers was in the hotel industry, and now she’s in real estate. A mother of two, she loved the family engagement component. Once a week, she reads one-on-one to and with children in 20-minute intervals. Per her instructions, she asks questions during the reading to help build comprehension. “There’s all these building blocks to reading,” she says. “You can sit with a child and tell they don’t know what a word means. You don’t just go through the motions. We stop and ask questions.”

        The Exchange’s website asks for volunteers. ENHE is working on serving the North Nashville area.

        “It doesn’t really take a lot of effort on our part,” Weinberg says of volunteers. “An hour a day. Just show up.”

        ENHE conducted a pilot program for North Nashville in 2016 with promising results, however, it isn’t prepared yet to go forward. There’s some tweaking needed, Linsey says.

        ENHE administrators also hope to diversify the funding. It costs $140,000 to run the summer program. ENHE is 61 percent grant funded, with other monies coming from donations and fundraisers such as its auction and wine tasting event and a meal called Booked for Dinner.

To learn more about ENHE and opportunities to get involved, visit www.enhopeexhange.org.


This exclusive feature was published in The Connect’s Summer 2018 issue. You may purchase the full issue here, or download the digital version here.