ARISE2Read turns five, continues to benefit Tennessee schools

By Josie Rabbitt Bingham

MEMPHIS—For five years, ARISE2Read has been changing the futures of second graders across rural east Tennessee.

ARISE2Read partners evangelical churches and businesses with local school districts. They focus on strengthening second graders’ reading abilities through sight word fluency.

“The children of our city are our children,” Donna Gaines, ARISE2Read founder, said. “We cannot stand by and not be involved. We must work together to save a child, save a family, save a life.”

Out of the 85 lowest functioning schools in east Tennessee, 59 are in Memphis. Former Tennessee teacher Karen Vogelsang is the current executive director of ARISE2Read and is constantly advocating for child literacy as test results rise.

“We focus our work on second graders because the second graders are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn,” said Vogelsang. “We recruit volunteers to come into the school for an hour a week during the eight to 10 months in the school year, and we focus on a very simple, foundational, early literacy skill which is sight word fluency.

“You do not have to be a teacher to teach sight words. You do not have to be a teacher to volunteer. All of us can gain something from participating in this literacy program.”

Lisa Haywood, a pharmacist and Bellevue Baptist church member, volunteered with ARISE2Read because she felt the Lord tugging on her heart.

“I feel like I don’t have the gift of teaching,” Haywood said. “But I felt confident after training and more confident the minute I sat down with the kids. They light up. It’s more than just teaching to them. It’s somebody in their lives who is consistent. Week after week, I’ll be there telling them how proud I am of them and that they’re doing well.”

ARISE2Read saw a 300 percent improvement among 800 students last year with 900 volunteers providing weekly coaching. This year, students’ reading numbers are even more impressive. Pre- program test results indicated only 21 percent of second graders were reading on sight word level. Post-program test results showed 53 percent of second graders were reading on sight word level after months of participating in ARISE2Read.

But why focus on sight words?

Sight words are words that don’t follow the rules of the English language. ARISE2Read uses a list of 1,000 words that educator Edward Fry determined a reader must recognize and understand on sight. Those are divided into levels of 100 words and are equal to grade levels.

The first 300 words on the list represent about 67 percent of all words students will encounter in their reading.

“A couple of things happen when children at this age can read sight words with mastery,” Vogelsang said. “They’re going to comprehend more quickly because they recognize the words, and they’ll feel confident in reading and in using those words. A long-term benefit of being able to read sight words and read on grade level is graduation.”

Nearly 89 percent of children reading at their grade level will graduate, according to Vogelsang.

But five years ago, school officials across east Tennessee were skeptical. ARISE2Read was established under the auspices of Bellevue Baptist Church in 2012 as an outreach program. The project was initiated by Gaines for Bellevue Loves Memphis, an outreach program of Bellevue Baptist Church. ARISE2Read quickly grew to stand on its own when city and county schools merged. Principals and school officials began discussing what could improve the reading skills of their students.

“What I appreciate the most about ARISE2Read is the intentional connection this organization shares with not only our principals and teachers, but also our students and parents,” said Dr. Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell, the Director of Family and Community Engagement for Shelby County Schools. “These volunteers take the time to invest in the coaching of our students, building the whole child, therefore producing a positive impact on the future leaders of our community. Shelby County is and will be a better community because we are supported by ARISE2Read.”

Twelve elementary schools became pilots for the literacy program. Five years later, ARISE2Read is in 21 schools across Shelby County.

The North American Mission Board’s compassion ministry, Send Relief got wind of ARISE2Read two years ago and is now a partner of the program. President of Send Relief, David Melber, agreed communities are better when churches and schools partner together.

“Any large urban area has the effects of forgotten-about schools,” Melber said. “But ARISE2Read has been connecting churches with local, under-resourced public schools to teach a child they have value and worth. It’s a great privilege for us to join them in doing that.”

“For the first time in our history, this is the first generation that is being raised up,” said James Christoferson, program director of ARISE2Read Jackson-Madison County. “For a variety of reasons, they had significant challenges in knowing how to read. But we have an opportunity right now to change that flow. ARISE2Read is designed to equip young people to become successful in whatever career, relationship and family they pursue. Reading is the foundation for all of that.”

Josie Rabbitt Bingham writes for the North American Mission Board.

Published September 19, 2018