Read and Write Kalamazoo (RAWK) gets ready to rock the corner of Vine and Westnedge

Coming soon: The Geological and Musicological Survey Company.

When RAWK—Read and Write Kalamazoo—opens its storefront that moniker will announce its presence in the Vine Neighborhood. This will be the third and latest incarnation of the nonprofit that has been promoting writing and reading for area youth since 2012. 

The name of the storefront, intended to be an eye catcher, plays on both meanings of “rock,” which is how you pronounce the organization’s acronym, RAWK. Both geological treasures and musical instruments will be side-by-side. It will be a place designed to capture whimsy and magic and sales in support of reading and writing programs offered there and in local schools.

Moving from the Reality Factory at 213 E. Frank Street is a big step for the small organization, but Executive Director Emily Kastner says they knew it was time to make a move when the space at Westnedge and Vine became available.

“We've been part of the Reality Factory and being upstairs there has been wonderful. We’ve had space there for workshops, but it's not accessible and there's no elevator. In thinking about ways that we want to grow, a lot of our programming is going to meet students and youth where they are, and we wanted to be able to have field trips and bring them to us.”

The hunt was on for the perfect location for the program that works with young people from pre-kindergarten through high school, Kastner says. “There’s a huge checklist—we want to be in a high foot-traffic area, close to public transportation, in a neighborhood, with close proximity to schools—those are really the highest need.”

A spot with a storefront and high visibility were also on the list. Kastner says she lives in the Vine neighborhood and noticed when the storefront became available. “Finally, after it being empty for a while, they actually put a sign up that said, ‘For Rent’ and I was like, ‘We have to do this. Now is the time. That's the dream location. Right on the corner. Those windows are amazing. What an amazing storefront that would be. And it's the size that meets our needs.’”

She presented a proposal to the Vine Neighborhood Association board of directors and by July 2017 the plans were in the works. Plans to move and renovate the space got a huge boost when RAWK received $25,000 from State Farm Insurance Co. RAWK was one of 40 community causes across the nation to receive the $25,000 in the Neighborhood Assist program that requires each cause to rally the community to vote for them each day online. Initially, 2,000 organizations entered the competition. That field was narrowed to 200 and from there voting began to select the winning 40 organizations.

While it won’t pay for the total cost of moving and renovating the new space, it gave RAWK enough to go forward. That funding combined with what it receives from funders such as the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation and the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation are making the new writing and reading center a reality. 

Neither the State Farn winnings nor the grant funding will cover all of the expenses, however. There continues to be an intense need for individual and corporate funding this year. The annual campaign to cover the costs will be known as Project 802 (as in 802 S. Westnedge, the storefront’s address). 

RAWK also will be asking more businesses to support its ongoing programs. For example, in much the same way a business would support a sports team, RAWK is hoping to find businesses that will sponsor a field trip in which students are bussed do the writing and reading center. Sponsorship will allow RAWK to offer all of its programs at no cost to students or the schools it serves. "We are inviting classrooms from schools that need us most," Kastner says.

Hidden behind the smallish retail space will be the heart of the center. There, students will write, and when all the pieces are in place, the works students create will be anthologized and published on-site so that they can take what they have written home with them in a bound book. 

That’s just the beginning of what RAWK offers. Its programs include a reading room at Lincoln Elementary and a writing room at Maple Street Middle School. RAWK offers support for classroom teachers by providing a facilitator to oversee a team of volunteers giving students supplemental one-on-one and small group time during the school day. The RAWK team supports in-class curriculum, provides tutoring, feedback, and inspiration. It also allows students a chance to enjoy more of their classroom teacher's individualized attention.

There’s also a Secret Book Club—members never know where it will meet next but they have been everywhere from the roof of Henderson Castle to the stage of the State Theatre. Participants find out the location by email shortly before the meeting is to take place. 

During the summer, RAWK offers writing workshops that explore a variety of genres. Students sharpen their writing skills of observing, interacting, writing, reflecting, and responding through workshopping their work. During the 20-hour summer program, they fill their RAWK journals. Students also go home from the summer workshop with a published anthology of their work.

“As an organization, we're really addressing equity and access within education, how we fit into that, and what are we doing to serve students better, and to serve students who need our support, who need the resources that we can provide,” Kastner says.

For example, the students they serve at Lincoln are well below the reading proficiency numbers of other Kalamazoo Public schools.

“In all of our programs, we aim to have a really low ratio of students to volunteers, so they're getting a lot of individualized attention,” Kastner says. “It's that individualized attention that’s not available in large class sizes. But even in the classes that are small, having one-on-one, two-on-one support is proven helpful to a student. They can be heard, ask questions, and feel engaged in writing.”

Keeping that ratio low means there is a great need for volunteers and volunteers are needed for all RAWK programs, Kastner says. (The next RAWK volunteer orientation is set for Nov. 14.)

RAWK’s work is more important than ever in Michigan, a state the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has dubbed a “laggard” in its comparison of academic achievement across the nation. The report says when it comes to fourth-grade African-American students, Michigan is dead last in ranking, with 9 percent found to be proficient in reading. (See sidebar for more information)

STEM and STEAM learning finds fans

This fall, in its current location in the Reality Factory, RAWK will explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programming. When RAWK announced its thematic workshops for the semester, the one called “Weird Science” filled up instantly. 

“They're going to be doing experiments and making things. And it's going to be really exciting. Then they have a writing component. So they'll tell the story of the experiment, or they'll tell the story of the scientist. They can get really fun and creative with it.”

It turns out Kastner not only loves to write, and knows how to draft curriculum from her days as a teacher, she also graduated college with an education degree and a double major in English and science, so she understands what the program needs. RAWK also will partner with local educators, including a science teacher, and those who are part of the local maker scene.

Back at 802 S. Westnedge

These days, construction workers are framing in the walls of the new center. They’ve already uncovered an interesting tile floor and taken out the drop tile ceiling, giving the center a new spacious feel. 

The hope is that the center is ready to be in use by late November or early December. RAWK has scheduled an "Open Door Party" from 5 to 7 p.m. Nov. 18 for folks who want to get a peek at the new space and to raise funds for Project 802.

Having helped RAWK grow from a camp a couple of weeks during the summer to the Reading and Writing Center she and co-founder Anne Hensley envisioned five years ago is almost surreal, Kastner says. (Hensley left the organization in January. Meanwhile, the staff has grown with the addition of staff, including Jason Conde, director of education.)

RAWK is patterned after a nationally recognized writing program, 826, which now has a network of seven centers, including one in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Each has a theme which inspires its programs, such as pirates in San Francisco. robots in Ann Arbor, secret agents in Chicago, and superheroes in New York. The program is based in San Francisco, where Kastner lived for five years. Her longtime friend Hensley also was familiar with 826. While in a writing group together they talked about creating a writing center in Kalamazoo someday.

“And then we had a friend's daughter who told us, ‘You guys are were writers and teachers. We need a really fun thing to do this summer.’ So RAWK started as just a couple weeks of summer writing camp. And we're like, ‘We’ll make a book and it'll be fun.’ And there's this thing, 826, and we could do something like that someday. So we just started small and kind of grew it into what it is. And now it feels very surreal. Like having this goal of having this writing center, and it was always this ‘someday’ thing. Seeing it come to fruition is very amazing and weird. But the thing that you wanted to happen is happening. So it's exciting.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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