Racial reconciliation is possible within your own neighborhood, and Karen Volgelsang, Executive Director of Arise2Read in Memphis, TN, shows you how. The ArisetoRead program takes willing people, provides simple training,and then sends them into local inner city schools – to change one life at a time. By reading to second graders, and helping them develop a foundational literacy skill called sight word fluency, Arise2Read is impacting the lives of economically disadvantaged children from inner city neighborhoods across America.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why literacy is one of the keys to racial reconciliation.
  • How Arise2Read is bridging racial inequity, one second grader at a time.
  • How you can help in your own community.

Read the transcript of the podcast below.


Karin: 00:00 Welcome to another edition of R4R, conversations that educate and elevate, I am Karen Connelly, the executive director of Race for Reconciliation. And I have back with me today, if you’re joining us by YouTube, you can see my beautiful guest, Karen Vogelsang. Karen, thank you for joining me for our part two of this podcast.

Karen: 00:21 Oh, thank you. I’m thrilled to be back on with you, Karen.

Karin: 00:24 Well, for those of you who missed part one, I have with me the executive director of a program called Arise2Read. It is a program based out of Memphis, Tennessee, if I can spit that out. And it is our privilege as an organization, race for reconciliation, each city that we host an event, we are going into those cities and partnering with an organization in the area of literacy, and organization in the area of vocational training, and then the third area is minority leadership development. And so, we are thrilled that the Karen comes on to represent our first city partnership with Arise2Read for our first event, which will be in Memphis. And not only does she represent a fantastic organization that is truly making a difference in the lives of so many children in the city of Memphis. But in addition to that, Karen also brings a wealth of perspective and knowledge, having been an educator, a teacher, I think you said K through fourth grade was your primary time, is that correct?

Karen: 01:36 First and fourth grade, most of my years in first grade. 

Karin: 01:40 Okay, and so today, in this particular edition, I really wanted to focus on just what Arise2Read is doing. And I know that the impact is much broader than Memphis. Give us a little bit, maybe give us the basics. Tell us a little bit about how Arise2Read works, to start with.

Karen: 02:01 Sure. So, Arise2Read is an organization that recruits and trains volunteers throughout a community, and we train those volunteers to work with two second grade students. Our focus is second graders, but they work with two second grade students, one each for 30 minutes. So, the volunteers are committing to serve an hour a week, typically from mid-September to early April. We always get out of the school buildings before state testing starts, so typically from mid-September to early April. But what the volunteers are working on with the children is developing a foundational literacy skill that’s called sight word fluency or word reading fluency. Dr. Edward, five years ago identified these one thousand words that occur most often in text. And so, when a child has that automatic recognition of these words, then that helps build their reading fluency. And I can tell you that as an educator, reading fluency is absolutely critical for reading comprehension. If a child’s brain or our brain, for that matter, is sitting there looking at a word and we’re trying to break it down and figure out what that word is, we’re not even thinking about the meaning. We’re just focused on the words. So, reading fluency is the focus, and that’s what our volunteers commit to doing throughout the school year. They work with the same two children every week, which builds these powerful relationships that helps to build self-confidence and motivation in the children. And so, it’s just it’s a win-win all the way around for the volunteers and for the children.

Karin: 03:38 Well, I love the model that you guys have developed and it has been so successful. I want to keep diving into that. But before I do, I should have started with this question, Karen, because this really kind of sets the stage as to why we’re talking about Arise2Read. But as an organization, our heart is to be a voice that causes healing from the past, honour in the present and hope for the future. And so, our focus is racial reconciliation. Why should literacy be a part of that conversation? I think that’s important for us to establish.

Karen: 04:17 Yes. You know, when I taught school, you and I’ve said this before, but if you can’t read, you can’t do anything, you’re stuck, and being stuck in life is a horrible place to be. So, we really have to make sure that all of this are coming together in the community. Because I can tell you, having been an educator and I’ve only been out of the classroom a couple of years, teachers cannot solve this literacy problem on their own. Government can’t provide policies or rules or whatever it may be or mandate curriculum and think that we’re going to be able to get over this hurdle with our current literacy rate. In Memphis, only twenty four percent of our third graders are reading proficiently by the time they leave third grade. As a state, I think we’re right around the fifty three percent level, so the opportunity out there is huge to help our children grow in their skills. But we are all going to have to come together, lock arms together and really invest in our young children to really help them become great readers before they get to third grade, because once they get to third grade, they are then transitioning from learning to read and kindergarten to second grade to reading to learn. And sixty six percent of fourth graders are not reading on grade level. By the time they leave the fourth grade, they are likely to end up on welfare or in prison. So, it is incumbent upon all of us as community members, and you don’t have to be an educator to be able to step into a school and support the education of all of our children to help them become great readers, because that’s literally where it all starts. You want a driver’s license? If you want to sign an NBA contract, whatever it is, you’ve got to be able to read. And so, we’ve got to invest in our young children to really make sure those foundational skills are secure so that when they transition to those later years of elementary school that they are going to be in a position to read to learn.

Karin: 06:19 So, when you think about the journey that Arise2Read has been on, it was started in 2012, I believe. What are the things that you have seen as you have grown and matured as an organization that have been really the keys to success in the classroom and success as you grow and expand this vision?

Karen: 06:44 There are a couple of things that come to mind. Our retention rate for our volunteers is over eighty five percent, which is well above the national average. The amazing thing is that we have incredible volunteers, all ages, businesses, religious backgrounds, just such a diverse group of volunteers and they keep coming back year after year. We always have the story of this one man where his wife wanted him to come and volunteer after he retired and he didn’t want to do it. He was actually scared of going into an inner-city school, but his wife won and he went and he had two boys, we typically try to match up our men with boys, because unfortunately, a lot of our boys don’t always have positive male role models in their life. And so, he had two second grade boys that he worked with that year. He fell in love with those boys. He started to see the needs that were occurring in the school. He helped them build a coat closet where they had spare clothes and coats for children that didn’t have coats in the winter. He started doing other things to invest in the school. That’s what’s happened over the seven years that Arise2Read has existed. You have a group of volunteers that come in and they start to see the needs beyond just the work that they’re doing for Arise2Read. And so, these incredible volunteer opportunities spill over into the school, so, that’s one incredible thing. And the fact that the volunteers keep coming back year after year, they’re serving different students each year because we work with second graders and then they go on to third. So, when the volunteers come back, they’ve got two new students that they’re building relationships with, those relationships between the volunteers and the students, I’ve had administrators say, look, the academic work that you are doing at Arise2Read with our kids is great. But, oh, my gosh, the relationship has just been so powerful because the children, they see this volunteer coming back week after week and they’re like, they’re coming to see me, wow, I must be special. And their self-confidence improves, their motivation, their desire to be a great reader, their desire to be a better learner. They go back into their classroom, and they spend more time on task. So, that relationship is powerful. And then really finally, we’ve got so many people in the community that are pointing fingers at schools and saying, you’re not doing enough or why can’t children read or whatever it may be. And they’re in a sense blaming schools or blaming teachers and administrators. And I can tell you as a teacher, we’ve got a lot of great teachers out there that are working really, really hard, but they are not going to be able to solve the literacy problem on their own. So, when the volunteers get in the schools, they’re like, oh, why was I believing in that story, these are incredible people that are working really hard and they find out that their investment is making a difference. And then they’re going out and they’re talking with their friends and their neighbors and their family members. And more people come in to schools to help us out on both of those fronts. And so, from one school, seven years ago, to forty-one schools this past year. Word is spreading just about the impact that somebody can make by just investing one hour a week, which equates to about, I don’t know, 16, 17 weeks, really, in total, by the time you take out spring break and fall break and winter break and all that kind of good stuff. So, it’s definitely been an amazing journey to see how Arise has grown and the impact that our volunteers have made with the students that we’ve served over the years.

Karin 10:27 Wow! Forty-one schools. That’s really so exciting. Tell us a little bit… I know that there are schools outside of Memphis that have reached out to you. What kind of impact have you had outside of the city of Memphis?

Karen: 10:42 We hear the same thing, the exact same thing. We’ve either had, you know, our founders, Donna Gaines, Donna is obviously very involved with the Southern Baptist Convention, and she has an opportunity to know lots of other pastor’s wives. So, just through word of mouth, other churches, individuals have learned about Arise2Read and they’ve reached out. And most of these organizations are in high need schools, in high needs communities. And we have some sites where it started off [inaudible 11:14] school, and now, they’re in seven schools. So, same stories, volunteers find out that there’s tremendous needs in the schools, they keep coming back year after year, then another school in that community hears what happened in the first school, and next thing you know, you’ve got two schools, three schools, four schools. But the same stories. The impact to the volunteers is incredible. They keep coming back. They invest beyond just their hour a week in the school, and then the impact for the children, same thing, their motivation increased, their confidence increased. They want to be a better student. They spend more time on task in the classroom. Teachers get excited about it. They start talking to teacher friends at other schools and then those schools, you know, so, it ends up becoming a domino effect. But we hear the same stories. I believe our last count; we have fifty-seven other sites and eleven other states and we actually also have A-R-I-S-E to Read in Kenya and Uganda.

Karin: 12:15 Wow, that’s fantastic. That is fantastic. Well, just from personal account, can tell you my son is a rising senior in college and his background was sports. And he will tell you the story. He was on a basketball team and one of the players on the team when they would travel, he sat next to him, always ordered the very same thing off the menu. And at one point he finally asked him, why do you do that? And he realized that the, I think he was a fifth or sixth grader at the time, couldn’t read, and that made a difference. And so, when he got to college, he worked with… he’s at the University of Alabama, went to the honors college that he was a part of and said, hey, I want to make a difference. And he got a group of honors college students that do exactly what you’re talking about. One hour a week, they go into a school, they got permission, and he tells the story, and you’ve met my son, Mark, he loved sports, and he loves people. But school wasn’t his favorite, when he was growing up. But he tells the story. He called us back in March and he said, there’s this young boy named Titus, and the first week I was working with him, he cried through the entire thing and he was like, it took every ounce of energy I had just to keep him with me. And he said this week he came into the cafeteria, which is where the school has the college students pair off and meet with their students each week, and he said he came in and he stood on top of a metal chair and he said, be quiet, everyone, the big guy with candies is here, and we’re going to show him what we learned. And, you know, it’s just things like that that I hope that everybody that listens to this, first of all, realizes that there is a way, you know, 2020 has brought new attention to a very old problem of the disparities that exist and the systemic problems that have existed in our country regarding racism. So many people are like, okay, we want to do something about it. But, what can I do about it? Karen, tell them what one individual can do about it, whether they’re in Memphis or somewhere else.

Karen: 14:45 Well, you know, they can work on getting Arise2Read programs started at an elementary school in their community, you know, during MLK50, a couple of years ago, I had a gentleman call me from Kansas City and he said, really care and exactly what you just said. I’ve just listened to all of these different presenters from MLK50. You know, the event was hosted here in Memphis and he is like I want to do something. What can I do? And the answer to that is really simple. It’s like, okay, where is a school that has a need? You know, where is the school in a high needs community that needs the support? And you contact that principal and you contact the district superintendent and you say, I want to do something to make a difference for the young children in your school. The thing that’s so great about Arise2Read, what I’ve heard over and over again as people… and I think this one story just really kind of exemplifies the impact that a simple program like Arise2Read can do. We had a local church that they had a bunch of members going into one of the charter schools here in Memphis, and they were reading to kindergarten students, but they weren’t seeing the impact and they heard about Arise2Read. And I met with one of the volunteers in the women’s ministry from this particular church, and I shared with her about Arise2Read, and we went and met with the administration at the school. They were like, this is amazing. Let’s get this started. They had a group of about 30 volunteers. We went to the church. We met the two Sunday school classes, two senior Sunday school classes, and we went and trained them and then we got everything set up. What the volunteers came back and told us was, this program is so structured, it’s so easy. They don’t have to worry about picking out a book or anything like that. They know exactly what children they’re going to be working with. They build a relationship with those children. And so, you know, they came back and they just talked about how easy it was to get it started, how structured it is so that they don’t have to, you know, read something ahead of time. They know exactly what they’re doing when they get in there. And so, the structure of the program and the impact of the program, you know, we weren’t able to get all of our data this year, because of COVID, we weren’t able to do a final post testing of our students.

But in the prior year, we only had 19 percent of our second graders reading on a second-grade level in terms of their work reading fluency. When we post tested our kiddos, we had over sixty seven percent of our children in the program reading on site on grade level when we post tested them and the average word gain was over three hundred and twenty one words, which represents three grade levels of growth, which means when those kiddos start going into the third grade, they are going to be so much better prepared to meet the demands of reading because they have had this additional support.

So, the impact is there and it’s a simple program. So, whether you call Arise2Read and say, hey, I want to get Arise2Read started in my community, we can start from ground zero or you… I got a phone call the other day from a gentleman in a suburb of Jackson, Mississippi, where we have seven schools where Arise2Read is currently used. That’s a great opportunity for me to make a connection between our existing, slightly there with him to help get that school started. So, it doesn’t matter where your starting point is, Arise2Read can help you with next steps, but beyond Arise2Read, anybody can go into a principal and say, I want to help. The best thing I can tell you, though, is be consistent. Don’t just show up once a month, be in there at least a couple of times a month, work with the same student or students, get involved in an after-school program, build a relationship, because that relationship can really be the beginning of just a complete difference. And Mark’s story is a perfect example of that. He had a relationship with that other fifth grade student and that story made an impact on him. And he carried that all the way through into his college days to be able to make an impact for young children in the community that he lives in now. So, anybody can make a difference. They just have to make the choice to do so.

Karin: 19:12 We are just so glad to be partnering with you. We know that Arise2Read is making a difference in the city of Memphis. And as we partner with you, we hope that we will encourage other people that are wanting to see healing occur in our city. [inaudible 19:30]. There are some very practical ways to get involved and you can be a part of the solution. Karen, as we as we wrap up this particular podcast, you and I had a little bit of an offline conversation, and you were just talking about, just all of the ways that you were blown away and really didn’t fathom just the situation of inner city education, as we leave, what would be the one or two things that you would be able to convey, having walked in that space that might other people that you know need to hear?

Karen: 20:15 Number one, don’t be scared. I mean, we’ve had a lot of people say, well, I want to be a part of Arise2Read, I want to volunteer, but I want to go to a school in a suburb. Well, the suburbs aren’t where you’re needed. And I’m not saying that there’s not opportunities in the suburbs, there are. But the real need is in our inner-city schools. Don’t be scared when you walk through the doors of a school in the inner city. It’s like walking into a different world, and it’s a beautiful, calm, inviting world. And once you step into that new and different world, you’re going to find out, Number One, how much are needed, but also how much you’re wanted. And you’re going to have that opportunity to make a difference. Maybe it’ll only be one child, but we’ve all got to start somewhere. And if every child had that one, that one to one can certainly make a difference. I think the other thing I would say is if you’re not an educator, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to have an education background to make a difference. It all starts with relationship. That was one of the biggest lessons that I learned going from a suburban school to an urban school.

There was a sense of distress, like, who is this middle-aged white lady coming in here trying to tell me what to do in a classroom or teach me or whatever? What do they know about my life? And it’s the old adage, they didn’t care what I knew until they knew that I cared. So, building that relationship, and when you step into an inner-city school, you’re building a relationship with the administration, with the teachers, with the students and with the families. And you’re going to have an opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child. And that difference may not be just for that point in time, but that difference could be throughout their lifetime.

Karin: 22:06 Well, Karen, I’m so grateful that you are at the helm of this, so grateful for Donna and her willingness to take this step and see how it has just really impacted the city of Memphis. And we’re excited to partner with you guys. If anybody wants to learn more about Arise2Read, where should they go?

Karen: 22:27 They should go to our website, and it’s arise2read.org, the two is the number two. So, ARISE2READ.ORG, and Karen, we are just thrilled to be a part of the inaugural event of race for reconciliation, and we’re just excited to see what the Lord’s going to do, not just in Memphis but beyond across the country, because it’s just as you’ve said, it’s really going to take all of us coming together to make a difference for all of our children. All.

Karin: 22:57 Well, we’re thrilled. And our first event in Memphis and whether you live in the city of Memphis and can come run with us, it will be on Martin Luther King Day, January 18th, 2021. We’re still planning that. We’ll see how COVID cooperates. But even if you’re not in town or even if we have to, we will do a virtual race and that money that you will invest to come and participate, whether virtually or in person is going to help us continue this mission to educate and elevate both in the area of racial reconciliation, but also to those non-profit city partners. So, as you support us, you also are supporting the work that is being done on the ground in each city that we take race for reconciliation to. So, check us out at RaceforReconciliation.org. Karen, thank you for joining us.

Karen: 23:48 Thank you, Karen.

Karin: 23:49 All right. You have a good one. And to our audience, if this has been helpful to you, please give us a rating and some feedback on iTunes or YouTube and share this so that we can get the word out and we can make a difference in each city. Take care.

Karen: 24:05 Absolutely.