RISE INDY’S new Freedom Readers Champion program is tackling literacy rates head-on.

The local nonprofit hosted the second of three swag bag pickups for its Freedom Readers workshop program June 15 at its offices, located at 1100 W. 42nd St. The virtual program is designed for parents of school-age children and aims to help bridge the gap between learning done at school and in the home through a free eight-week, online summer course.

“We are teaching parents how to teach their kids how to read, (the) basic principles, the five pillars of the science of reading and really being able to close some of the gaps in the home so that parents can complement what’s happening and really tutor their kids right at home,” said Ashley Thomas, vice president of organizing at RISE INDY.

Thomas said the program is designed to improve literacy in the Black and brown community, since literacy rates for Black and brown children have been a major concern even before the pandemic.

According to the Indiana Literacy Association, only 81% of Hoosiers can read. When it comes to student test scores, only 74.2% of Black students and 78.1% of Latino students passed the IREAD-3, while 91.6% of white students passed IREAD-3.

Although they value all the work teachers have been doing with students, Thomas said learning at school alone has never been enough and involving parents will hopefully be a game changer in literacy rates, as they are their kids’ “first and most important teacher.”

RISE INDY prepared 252 tote bags for parents in the community as part of its new Freedom Readers Champion program.
RISE INDY prepared 252 tote bags for parents in the community as part of its new Freedom Readers Champion program. (Photos provided/RISE INDY)

RISE INDY CEO Jasmine Shaheed-Young said improving literacy rates in Indiana has always been an interest of the organization, but the pandemic made it even more prevalent. Teachers can only do so much in the classroom, and when it comes to supplementing a child’s education, Shaheed-Young said it is up to parents to come in and provide that support rather than placing the burden on teachers.

“It’s the most successful when there is a partnership between the teachers and parents, so from this program, they’re getting the tools to support it with literacy,” Shaheed-Young said. “When the kids go back to school after the summer, they (parents) can be able to support and say, ‘This is where I saw my kid grow; this is where there’s still a gap.’”

RISE INDY initially anticipated 150 sign-ups from parents in the community, Thomas said. Instead, they prepared 252 bags for pick-up over the course of three days. On June 15, several parents and students came in to pick up bags, including Fabiana Hernandez, who signed up to help herself and her three children.

Hernandez, who spoke to the Recorder through an interpreter, said she believes parents should be more involved in programs like these so they can have a better understanding of their children’s education — especially when organizations like RISE INDY provide free workshops.

Since it is kids they are talking about, “all education is connected,” Hernandez said, and overlap between their growth at school and at home starts with parents. 
Kimberly Woolfolk said she signed up to learn different strategies to help her eight-year-old daughter. Woolfolk said her daughter made the honor roll but still struggles in a few areas, and she wants to take advantage of the opportunity in encouraging her daughter’s reading.

“My goal for her is to encourage her confidence in reading and not be scared of breaking down words and picking up a book and really reading it from cover to cover and actually being able to comprehend,” Woolfolk said. “Ultimately, to push her to the next level, to bump her up to higher grade is my goal.”

As far as personal goals, Woolfolk said she wants to participate in this program so that she might mentor other parents who may not have the skill sets or confidence to help their kids or family members do the same. She said it presents an affordable opportunity for parents to meet their children where they are academically without having a degree in education.

“If parents don’t have the skills or struggle, then they might pass those same struggles to their children,” Woolfolk said. “I feel like this program bridges the gap to give other strategies to parents who might not; you can read it, but if you don’t know how to break it down, how to make it tangible for a child to get, it’ll make it harder for them.”

Currently, the program is in its infancy, as this is the first time RISE INDY has received funding to support it. Shaheed-Young said she hopes to continue and expand the program to include even more parents in the future, as it can help them secure mentors and tutors for the school year.

“The city has plans to reach 800 to 1,000 kids by fall, but you need tutors, right?” she said. “Our idea is how do we ensure that parents go through the program, but then there might be something that’s ignited within them, just kind of like, ‘I actually want to support not only my own kid but become a tutor that helps more students in Indianapolis.’”

RISE INDY’s Freedom Readers Champion program is offered online for parents in English and Spanish for eight weeks plus during in-person office hours. For more information, visit riseindy.org/home.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or chloegm@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.