Driven to read: Our book campaign fills a pre-K need

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Sometimes there’s a eureka moment, where a kid makes a breakthrough and it’s all a tutor can do to not throw confetti and parade around the room.

Other times progress is more subtle.

“Carton,” said 9-year-old Imani Eugene of Detroit, reading a passage from “Charlotte’s Web” in the Beyond Basics room at Burton International Academy.

Not car-TAWN, the way it sounded Friday the first time her slender finger traced beneath the word, and not CART-on, like the second time, but carton, as in, “the carton wobbled, and there was a scratching noise.”

Imani kept going, ever more strong and confident. Tutor Jasmine Range barely had time to smile.

There was no confetti this time, but there was growth. It was another victory for Beyond Basics — and another reminder of why The Detroit News helped launch the program we’re calling Today’s Readers, Tomorrow’s Leaders.

Through March, we’re joining with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the Hiller’s Market grocery chain to buy books for pre-Kindergarteners who might not have any others in their homes.

Donations can be made at or in a Hiller’s checkout lane. One donor at Hiller’s will win a $500 gift card, and the children in the 12,000 families served by United Way’s Early Learning Centers could come away with something even more valuable.

Very little to read at home

These are little books for little people, but the grown-ups at Southfield-based Beyond Basics can tell you they’ll have a sizeable impact.

Pamela Good, the founder and executive director, said she has been in houses in Detroit with not a word to read except the brand names on a few appliances. No books, no magazines, not even junk mail for a family that might have had four substandard addresses in a year.

In the low-performing schools where her group sets up shop, “probably 30 to 50 percent of the people are transient,” Good said. “There wouldn’t likely be books carried from place to place” — and there might not be an adult who can read them.

Imani, a third-grader, said her mother used to read to her. Now Imani reads to her 6-year-old brother.

“That’s so important,” Good said. “So important.”

Beyond Basics has other programs in the six schools it’s serving this year. The Publishing Center turns children’s ideas into slender, cloth-covered hardbound books, and in an Art with the Masters session Friday, a dozen second-graders wearing adult shirts backward as smocks learned about French pointillist Georges Seurat and painted pictures with dots.

But the centerpiece is Read to Rise, in which kids from elementary through high school who read below grade level are assigned to a tutor one hour each school day for six weeks.

It is important to keep up

Instruction is built around magnetized boards with color-coded tiles representing vowels and consonants on one side, and prefixes, roots and suffixes on the other.

Pull students up to grade level or beyond, studies suggest, and they’ll stay there. Let them fall further behind, and as Good delicately expressed it, “that can lead to a lot of things that wind up impacting society.”

Jasiah Wynn wants to impact society in a good way, as a police officer. A fifth-grader in a lime green Ninja Turtles T-shirt who turned 11 on Saturday, he said he enjoys reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books and the Bible, but had been having trouble with pronunciation.

After eight sessions, he was churning through a book called “Football Double Threat.”

“I had a student last year,” said reading manager Rob Conner, “who was having trouble blending consonant sounds.”

Even with help, the boy struggled for two weeks. “Then all of a sudden it was, ‘Black! Blue!’ He got excited and then I got excited, because I knew we had turned a corner.”

“It’s amazing to see the changes,” agreed staffer Johanna Zwally. “It’s not just academic.”

Options abound for kids who read well, and the world shrinks for those who don’t. In high-need communities, less than a quarter of children are developmentally prepared for Kindergarten.

At home in Dearborn, Zwally reads to her son Sam every day. He’s almost a year old, and “he likes turning pages,” she said.

With that sort of start, chances are good he always will.