A Journey of Collaboration and Growth

The initial idea for the Readers Are Leaders program was rooted in two commitments that Wendell Byrd emphasized in his career of over thirty years as teacher and coach: first, in his work as an elementary school teacher, focusing on reading as the key to empowering students, and second, his yearly commitment to involving his basketball players in community service as a means of developing character and responsibility.

In 2003, under the guidance of Coach Byrd and with financial support from the Colburn Family Foundation, the South Lakes High School boys’ basketball program partnered with neighboring Terraset Elementary School in Reston, Virginia. Terraset matched well as a partner because the staff was committed to finding additional reading support for its weakest readers and believed that the weekly tutoring sessions that Coach Byrd was proposing might be a perfect remedy.

Although no statistical data was recorded in our first two years, the program received enthusiastic responses from the elementary school students and their parents as well as Terraset teachers and administrators. Many focused on the fact that these young students not only improved as readers but that they also developed more maturity and confidence as a result of the encouragement and guidance from the athletes, who often filled the role of an older, supportive brother. The high school students also found the experience intensely rewarding as they developed bonds with these elementary school kids and saw that they could make a difference in their lives. Because of the success, good will, and encouragement achieved in the first two years, Coach Byrd reached out to the broader Northern Virginia community to share this model.

In 2005, Wendell began the process of looking for elementary school teachers and administrators who were fully committed to helping their at-risk readers. He also looked for coaches in partnering high schools who understood the responsibilities and rewards of service. Readers Are Leaders now works with both boys’ and girls’ programs including basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, and football as well as a cheerleading, a dance team, and a National Honor Society program.

In 2006, Readers Are Leaders developed a partnership with the Teen Services Division of Fairfax County Community and Recreation Services.  Since then, we have worked with eight of Fairfax County's community centers. This teamwork has created reading opportunities for the youngsters (kindergarten through sixth grade) in the community centers' after-school programs. Families concerned with the academic growth of their children have appreciated our partnership with the community centers not only for its educational benefits but also because our student athletes offer encouragement and help to build confidence, work habits, and positive attitudes when working with the younger students. Seventy-five percent of the students in our after-school programs attend Title I schools - schools that have the highest levels of poverty in Fairfax County.

Since 2012, we have worked to build model for sustainable RAL “satellite” programs outside of the Washington, DC metro area. We are currently partnering with two schools in North Carolina.

In 2015-2016, Fairfax County Public Schools made a shift in its bell schedule, which had a significant impact on the timing and window of opportunity for afternoon activities­­—the prime time to schedule our Readers Are Leaders sessions in Fairfax County. We lost four of our Fairfax County partnerships that could not work out the flexibility to keep our program. Since then, we have begun to grow again in Fairfax County with schools that have managed the flexibility to include RAL as an asset to their program.

In 2019-20, we had enlisted  forty teams from twenty high schools across five counties to partner with our young students in twenty-five elementary schools and one community center.   However, the 2019-2020 school year was abruptly cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools were closed just as many winter sports teams in our program were wrapping up their final sessions. As the spring sport teams were beginning their season and our spring mentoring sessions were about to get underway, schools were shut down, and our spring  program was cancelled. Since our yearly testing data is drawn by comparing standardized reading scores achieved in the fall with student scores achieved in the spring, our usual data collection of students’ reading scores, surveys, and feedback was not possible. However, with support from our elementary schools, we were able to donate 6,330 books to our students.

In the academic year 2020-21, schools around the country struggled to meet their educational goals while trying to protect their students and staff from the Covid-19 virus. Some school systems worked hard to bring students and teachers back into the classroom and provide a safe haven for students and staff. However, many teachers and students ended up trying to teach and learn remotely – an experience that many found limited and less effective.

Even though we could not continue with our mentoring, we were still able to work with many of our the schools to provide books for their struggling readers just as we did in the spring semester of 2020. In the 2020-21 school year, $35,727. was spent on books donated to our Readers Are Leaders students. We are pleased to note that of this amount, Bookworm Central donated $10,201. worth of books. We worked with twenty of our elementary schools to provided 8,931 books to nearly 900 young readers – an average of about ten books per student. Again, our elementary schools were resourceful in their efforts to help us get engaging books into the hands of our young readers.

The 2021-2022 school year started with uncertainty. Because of COVID concerns, many principals decided to defer participation in RAL until the next year. We had no mentoring partnerships in the fall, but as the year progressed and COVID tensions gradually eased, schools welcomed us back, and we began rebuilding in the aftermath of the COVID shutdown. By the end of the year, we had sixteen mentoring partnerships operating - approximately half of the regular number of mentoring programs that were operating pre-COVID. Fortunately, schools were adapting and learning how to take advantage of the benefits of our program. Our elementary students plus our mentors totaled 731 students. Many of our elementary school staff noted that our program was especially helpful in the face of the general decline in reading skills during COVID.

In 2021-22, we began a Classroom Library Outreach Program to support young readers. This is separate initiative not connected with our mentoring partnerships. Our goal is to reach out to schools that have limited book resources for their students and to target a specific classroom in that school to supply a library of 250 books. In January 2022, we selected Aurora Collegiate Academy, a charter school serving children across Memphis, Tennessee as the first recipient of our program. We were impressed with the school’s overall approach, expectations, and core mission.

In 2022-23, we continued to rebuild our program and to recover from COVID setbacks. In our mentoring partnerships, we brought together 594 elementary school students with 528 student mentors – a total of 1,122 students. Our total book donation was 6,200 books.

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