Local Literacy Program

nlike many St. Louisans who forsake St. Louis for coastal climes once they graduate college, Josh Goldman decided to make a difference in his hometown community. After receiving his master’s in education from Peabody College in Nashville and working in elementary school classrooms for several years, he created a literacy program here in St. Louis that has become a positive influence in the lives of disadvantaged children.

Goldman had been hired as an extern by Urban Strategies, a for-profit St. Louis company that creates mixed housing developments with a focus on revitalization. While he was researching the achievement gap between the middle-class and underserved African-Americans, he realized that a central issue was the ‘fourth-grade slump,’ when students start to suffer from a deceleration in learning. The achievement gap widens to three years by sixth grade, he says, and to as much as seven years by high school.

Accompanying the academic slump is a social downswing. “We start losing them to more negative influences in their neighborhoods. So we thought of an intervention that would stave off the fourth-grade slump,” Goldman says. “There was the idea that kids would read if given a good enough selection of books and the opportunity to choose from among them. That was the heart of the research: Kids will read if given the right conditions.”

While he studied at Brown School of Social Work during the academic year, over the summer, Goldman and a squadron of teachers began tutoring Adams Elementary School students in the language arts, scaling the ratio of students to teachers down to 3 to 1. The relationship-based program, dubbed Succeeding with Reading, used ‘balance literacy,’ a combination of phonics and whole language learning, and guided reading, where a group of children worked with a teacher to master a book just beyond their comprehension level. Thousands of books were donated to the program, from which children picked selections to take home. Their average gain in comprehension was nearly three months in six weeks’ time!

After graduating with his MSW, Goldman connected with Tom Nolan at Access Academies, which is taking the model of the Nativity schools—a network of 65 faith-based middle schools serving low-income kids across the U.S.—and adapting it for four pre-existing St. Louis schools. “We’re beefing up their programs, creating great middle schools for much less money,” Goldman says. “We help them with their infrastructure, programmatically and organizationally, and provide technical assistance, while I work with the fourth- and fifth-graders.”

Goldman also has recreated and extended the literacy program at St. Louis’ freestanding Nativity middle schools—Loyola, Marian and De La Salle—recruiting younger children to the schools from organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters. Each site serves 12 children, providing each student the sustained attention he needs. “The kids respond to it beautifully,” Goldman beams. “We give away a free book every Saturday to every child, and some kids are reading 300 minutes a week outside the program.” Children who stick with the program have a leg up in getting into the Nativity schools for middle school, and then into good college preparatory schools, from which 75 percent of graduates go on to college.

But Goldman is not stopping there. Part of the literacy program is continual improvement, he explains. This past year, it integrated a group of learning centers in the classroom, which divides the time and topics into manageable pieces for the children to learn. Next year the program aims to collaborate further with parents and teachers, so everyone is working together. “We’re always fine-tuning and improving,” Goldman says.

And waiting in the wings is a six-week summer school program to be held at City Academy in North St. Louis. The day will start with optional tutoring, followed by reading and writing, free lunch and recess, 90 minutes of math, and then arts. “The idea is to make math fun. We’ll create a classroom economy—charging rent, buying property around the room—to make math engaging and relevant,” Goldman explains.

Meanwhile, the children in the literacy program are gaining measurable ground in their fluency, vocabulary and comprehension skills, Goldman reports. “It’s also about creating this love of learning, so we do a ‘joy inventory’ with a pretest and post-test asking how much the students like reading, the gains in those scores are something we can show the public and our funders.” To become a program funder or volunteer, contact Goldman at goldmanj@accessacademies.org or 602-8454.

Besides the individual gains for the students, the program is forging a web of accountability and relationships. “Because of this program, families are more excited about the future. I think we’re getting the kids excited about reading, relationships, success and learning. Maybe that can be more influential than other influences in their lives. And maybe that will affect their friends, too. They are truly changing their lives.”