The Center for Success Network uplifts young students through the joy of learningThe Nonprofit Journal Project

March Book Madness is upon us at the Center for Success Network. During our annual read-a-thon, our mentors and students are teaming up to see who can read the most. Last year, our community read for over 21,000 minutes! Throughout this month, we’ll have author read-alouds, Facebook fundraising opportunities and virtual community celebrations. Our students are also filling out their book bracket, where 16 stories well-loved stories will compete for votes until we find the ultimate winner. What a fun way to get our kids excited about reading! 

At the Center for Success, literacy is the anchor of our work. Across 12 sites, we provide after-school and out-of-school programming for elementary youth in metro Detroit. We currently serve about 400 students, who work one-on-one with a literacy mentor twice a week to improve their proficiency. We partner with several schools in both Pontiac and Detroit, to identify students who need significant literacy support.

We always speak to our students as striving to read at grade level, and really working hard to meet that goal, but typically, those who enter our program are at least a year behind in reading proficiency. Often when you're having a hard time with reading, you're struggling across all content areas because literacy is such a critical, foundational piece of learning. 

Many of our students have added barriers around transportation to school, or a school-to-school transition. Some families also have adults in the home who have low levels of literacy. We utilize rich tools and assessments to understand exactly where students are functioning, what skills we can help support, and how we can build lessons. 

We also provide robust training for our volunteer mentors, who range from high school and university students to senior citizens. They first get acclimated to our organization, learn and understand our history, and deeply engage with our literacy materials. Right now, our mentors are virtual, so we have a huge amount of online resources they can use during their sessions.

Then we move into our workshop, "Mentoring for Equity". This training is about understanding the deep history of inequity in education in the communities we serve, understanding our mentors' own privilege and bias coming into these sessions, and ways they can deeply connect and build relationships with students. This is a critical piece before diving into any academics.

When COVID-19 hit, we were completely blown away by the number of mentors who joined our work. By going virtual, people were able to connect to our students from across the country. In 2021, we trained over 900 people!  However, we're always on the hunt for more volunteers. We have new partnership opportunities, and a waiting list of kids who we can't yet bring into the program. It's important to consistently provide students this time twice a week, as that's when we see results happen. 

Partnering with others has always been key to the work we do. We own and operate one site in Pontiac, and one in Detroit, and then we partner with existing nonprofits that are doing youth development work to provide the literacy component to their after-school programming. Our partners are doing enrichment in STEM and robotics, parent-empowerment, sports, healthy cooking, etc. and are doing it really wonderfully. 

Our students are with us for about 3 ½ hours twice a week. One hour of that program is with an enrichment partner, and the rest is spent eating a healthy meal and going through the literary piece with their mentor. We also provide transportation. We’re so grateful for our site partners, Brilliant Detroit, Downtown Boxing Gym and Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, who have helped us reach new communities and grow our organization and its programming tremendously. 

From a leadership perspective, it's been vital to me to have the support of partnerships while navigating the pandemic. I’ve been able to meet with other leaders to put together clear COVID-19 safety guidelines, reopening procedures and standards,  and to brainstorm how we can best support our staff, etc. Working together has not only strengthened our organizations, but has provided a tighter support-system for our communities. 

That system was critical at the height of the pandemic, especially. We partnered with other nonprofits to provide our families with meals. We did thousands of check-in calls to ask our parents and mentors about their struggles and needs, and how we could connect them with resources. We made referrals to organizations we knew had the capability to help with jobs, finances, health, etc. We also put together at-home literacy and learning kits, and gave away lots of books to help our students build their at-home libraries.

Though we’re back in-person, I'm concerned for our students. They're so excited to learn, but this long-term disconnect from school and change of routine is really hard. So many of them have had tremendous loss during the pandemic. We’re striving to put some great solutions in place to build their confidence, their connections with peers, and relationships to support them, as well as their social-emotional learning and skills. Those things have to be in place in order to see academic gains. 

It's also important to keep finding unique ways to engage our kids around learning. That's why I'm so passionate about this month's read-a-thon. I’m a lifelong learner and educator, and I want kids to have that drive to learn and to be excited. As communities, we have a big task to fill what's been lost for students in the pandemic.

When I see our students and our team show up with joy and energy, I'm encouraged. They light up when they see each other! I’m also inspired by our mentors, this huge network of people who give up their time and talent to be with our amazing kids. They're all saying, this is important, we need to do this, and they're willing to ask, how can we do this together? 

Andrea Meyer is the executive director of the Center for Success Network. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.