Beyond Basics

Reading, writing and ‘expanding horizons’ in Detroit

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Peter Jurich, tutor, works on phonics with Dorian Mosby at Thirkell Elementary School. Mosby moves alphabet tiles around a whiteboard in an approach that involves seeing the letters and hearing and speaking the sounds as he manipulates the tiles.

"This is a good story," the young man says, holding up a sheaf of papers for inspection. When no one responds right away, he repeats in a louder voice, "This is a good story."

Call it author's pride.

It's Publishing Center Day at Barbara Jordan Elementary School in Detroit, and this young author and half a dozen more are at work on original stories about running away from home, mischievous cocker spaniels and trips to the moon.

They arrive at the center with manuscripts in hand, dedicate the next hour to editing and polishing, and leave in the knowledge that their work soon will return to them in book form, complete with colorful cover.

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Jill Honda and student Piere Browner work together to edit Browner’s latest manuscript during Book Publishing Day at Barbara Jordan Elementary School in Detroit. Honda is a volunteer with Beyond Basics.
More images …

The book publishing program is operated by volunteers and staff members of Beyond Basics, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to offer literacy and cultural programs to metro Detroit children.

Now working in four Detroit Public Schools buildings and one in Pontiac, the program offers tutoring in reading and math, book publishing and other literacy programs, and an "Expanding Horizons" enrichment series. Most of the programming takes place during the regular school day in classrooms that each school has agreed to set aside for that purpose.

Pam Good, Beyond Basics executive director, says her goal is to offer literacy and enrichment programs to as many Detroit children as possible by working inside schools, through principals and teachers.

"I didn't come into this district to change the district. I came in to help children. ... You change reading levels and you change the dropout rate," says Good, a Bloomfield Hills resident. "Everyone knows you've got to be able to read and do basic math."

GETTING STARTED

Good's first contact with the Detroit school system came on the day she delivered donated coats to an elementary building 10 years ago.

"My eyes were opened to the vast differences in public education," she says. Soon, she and other volunteers began putting together activities on a "hit-or-miss" basis for a handful of Detroit schools. As her relationship with principals and teachers strengthened, she says, she proposed ongoing literacy and cultural programs at no charge to the schools.

One of the tutoring programs is under way today at Detroit's Thirkell Elementary School, where tutor Peter Jurich and student Dorian Mosby are working on phonics.

Seated before a white board covered with magnetic alphabet tiles, Mosby picks out variations of the "k" sound: the letter c, the letter k, the combination ck. He makes the "k" sound with emphasis each time he points to a tile.

Jurich is paid for his part-time, seasonal tutoring, but Beyond Basics also draws on hundreds of volunteers, including students from other schools.  Teacher participation in the program is voluntary, according to Good, but educators' willingness to refer students and to participate in Beyond Basics activities has grown over the years.

"The principal is key," she says. "They're the reason it works."

At Detroit's Jamieson Elementary School, Principal David Harris said Beyond Basics has become part of the school culture.

"At first they (teachers) were leery," he said. "We get a lot of programs that come and go."

But five years of programming has made for a solid relationship between the school and the nonprofit organization, he said.

"Consistency solidifies the progress," he said. "If a parent says, ‘Hey, my child needs extra help,' I'm able to give that help."

ENRICHMENT FEEDS LITERACY

While reading and writing are key components of Beyond Basics, enrichment activities are viewed as equally important.

At Jamieson Elementary, the organization has brought in The Motor City Lyric Opera, a giant-screen film on polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, speakers on French and Spanish culture, and various musicians, Harris said, plus arranged field trips to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

While working to raise money for Beyond Basics' own efforts - the budget now stands at about $400,000 - Good also tries to use it as a conduit through which other organizations, like the Lyric Opera and Cranbrook, can bring their programs into the schools.

One long-term partner is Daimler Financial Services. Headquartered in Farmington Hills, a group of Daimler Financial employees first made the trip to Thirkell Elementary School in Detroit in 2005 for a day of reading, writing and art activities.

"It's not too far, distance-wise, but it's worlds away," said Lora Vinande, Daimler Financial manager of diversity and community relations. "It is eye-opening for both the students and our employees."

In following years the company cemented its relationship with Thirkell through financial contributions as well as continued employee involvement, both one-on-one in tutoring arrangements and in group outings. Last year the firm arranged for Cranbrook art educators to visit Thirkell classrooms, as well as for Thirkell students to tour Cranbrook's art museum and write critiques of their favorite works.

"It's one of the relationships we're most proud of," Vinande said, partly because Good has been able to show measurable differences in students' academic achievement.

"It's rare to be able to work with an organization that can provide that," she said.

Vinande is referring to pre- and post-testing that Beyond Basics does with students in its tutoring programs. Those tests show that four to six weeks of intensive tutoring can bring students up to grade level in reading, Good said.

The enrichment programs are not measurable in the same way, she said, but added that enrichment programs promote literacy by adding to a child's general body of knowledge as well as by motivating them to learn more.

Called "prior knowledge," educators say that the information children learn outside the classroom - from library books, museums, after-school activities, sports - feeds into their ability to do well in the classroom.

For example, Good said, even if a child recognizes the word "penguin," that child would find it hard to write an impromptu essay about penguins if he or she had never read a library book about penguins, visited a zoo or watched a nature show about penguins.

"The bottom line is, our children have a lack of prior knowledge," Harris said. "These activities give our children a jump on that."

SCALING UP

At five schools and with a $400,000 budget, Good said she plans to apply to area foundations for financial support to expand Beyond Basics.

"In the ideal Beyond Basics school, we would be funded for reading, writing, math and Expanding Horizons," she said. Right now, the level of programming at each site depends both on funding and volunteerism.

"We realize that we have created a model for going into poor, urban areas," she said. "I will seek to expand to anyone willing to adopt our programming. Our goal is to reach as many children in Detroit as we can."

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Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.

“I didn’t come into this district to change the district. I came in to help children. … You change reading levels and you change the dropout rate.” - Pam Good, Beyond Basics executive director

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