For this month’s Stronger Together feature, we’re joined by Steve Hagler, the Executive Director of LearnUp Centers. Today, Steve joins us to discuss LearnUp Centers’ mission, current projects, and transition to virtual engagement.
If you’d prefer to listen to our conversation with Steve, you can check out our Stronger Together podcast episode.
What do LearnUp Centers do, and how do you achieve these objectives?
LearnUp Centers is a nonprofit literacy center on a mission to change how we teach kids to read. In particular, we work with kids with learning differences, such as those living with dyslexia or other learning challenges that make reading more difficult.
We teach them to read using a systematic phonics program. It allows children to learn one step at a time. We add layers and layers until they can read.
How did LearnUp begin? What is the background story of LearnUp?
The idea for LearnUp Centers came to life when Pascal and Virginie Rigo’s son struggled to learn to read. He entered 5th grade reading at a 3rd-grade level. They then met Steve Tattum, who took their son from reading at a third-grade level to reading at a high school level in less than a year.
Pascal and Virginie were astounded. They had taken their son to multiple tutors and tried various programs, but nothing had worked. Yet, Steve was able to teach their son to read quickly. Steve explained his program and why it worked.
Pascal and Virginie wanted to work with Steve to spread his teachings. LearnUp was created as a nonprofit organization so we could provide our programs to communities that wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise.
As a veteran teacher, I didn’t believe it myself at first. I don’t believe in curriculum just happening. You have to work at it.
When I first met with Steve, he said he would train undergrad students to teach kids to read in 3-4 months using his program. I didn’t believe him. No one was teaching low-level kids to read that quickly. I challenged him to prove it. We piloted the program, and sure enough, the undergraduate students got the same results as Steve. I thought we got lucky, so we tried it again. And again. And it kept working. Our tutors teach our reading program within a 90% fidelity of the founder of the program, which is incredible.
Now, five years later, we’re still getting the same results. We recruit our tutors deliberately and train them well, and we see incredible results.
How many students have gone through the program collectively over the years?
The average LearnUp student is in the program for about 80-100 hours. A tutor working with one child an hour a day can tutor two and a half children annually during that time. We’ve taught over 200 students to read in the last few years.
How has your program evolved?
The program has been around in one iteration or another since the late 1990s. It was based on the science of reading that existed then and has been iterated on ever since. As new findings emerge in the literature or we discover better ways to teach reading in our clinics, we adjust and update our programming.
The basic program hasn’t changed much, but the methodologies for delivering the program have changed significantly. Notably, we’ve seen significant changes from the pandemic. In March 2020, everyone moved to distanced learning and had to move from in-person programming to Zoom overnight.
That was a big lift because it changes how you deliver the programs. You can’t just move the in-person curriculum online. We had to make some adjustments. We realized we could deliver the same programs in a virtual environment without seeing a drop-off in reading outcomes. This allowed us to see our opportunity to scale and reach more learners in a way we couldn’t have done before the pandemic.
Now, all our one-on-one tutoring happens over Zoom, and thanks to distance learning, we are hiring tutors and enrolling students all over the United States.
What does the future of LearnUp look like?
For the near future, we’re going to stay virtual. We anticipate moving to a hybrid model in the future.
Through virtual learning, we’ve found that we can seamlessly bring programming to the communities that need it the most, that otherwise would be the hardest to serve.
We can Zoom in a tutor to an after-school program and provide valuable tutoring. We don’t need to move the tutor or the student. Importantly, we can leverage existing equipment in after-school programs. They already have Wifi, laptops, and a headset. Now we’ve created on-site educational liaisons to bring it all together.
Can you talk about your workplace giving program? How does LearnUp plan to reach out to employees and their families?
With LearnUp, companies have the chance to provide their employees’ families access to learning that can change a child’s life. Learning how to read can be super expensive for families. We envision a staff benefit where their children are assessed in reading, and if they need it, enrolled in our programs so that we can teach the child to read at their grade level and beyond.
This benefit could change the trajectory of a family with a child who is not reading. Obviously, it would be great for the child, but it is also awesome for companies looking for ways to incentivize employees to stay. No family is more grateful to an organization than one that’s helped their child learn to read. It’s also an incredible way for companies to give back to their community by ensuring everyone on their staff is raising children who can read.
What is the most impactful thing LearnUp has done in the past? (feel free to name a few!)
There are a couple of initiatives we’re working on. The biggest project we’ve worked on is working with the Boys and Girls Club to design a program that will bring tutoring and reading to after-school programs in the clubhouses where kids spend their time. I don’t think you can do anything more impactful than becoming the seventh hour of the school day and helping children get the reading remediation they need. The achievement gap in the United States in reading is massive. 60% of fourth-graders in the United States do not read at the appropriate grade level.
There’s a significant need to bring this type of tutoring and extra reading help to all kinds of children, but school districts simply don’t have the capacity to do it. Building that capacity in the afterschool programs is a huge opportunity.
The second most impactful initiative we’re working on is working with previously incarcerated adults. Often, incarcerated young people have low reading abilities and aren’t able to read well enough to hold down a job or get their GEDs. Reading ability is an indicator for success and is a key factor in reducing recidivism.
I love working with kids in middle and high school who are reading at a second- or third-grade level and are done trying to learn how to read. Typically, they think they’re not smart enough, but seeing them light up and realize they have a reading difference like dyslexia and that they can learn to read is super, super satisfying.
In our program, you go from students who couldn’t read and now pick up a book because they can, and want to. That changes a child’s trajectory. They’re now reading for knowledge, fun, and stories - it opens a whole world to them that was closed beforehand. The ability to pick up a menu, read it, and order for yourself in a restaurant is a game-changer.
What has the funding process looked like for LearnUp? Do most of your donations come from small or large donors?
LearnUp Centers is a social enterprise. We charge tuition to those that can afford to pay it; we ask them to pay their fair share. We pay for the program through philanthropy and donations for families that can't afford it. We are primarily funded through individual contributions on the larger side and grants for organizations working in the literacy space.
How is bunny.money helping LearnUp Centers achieve key goals?
bunny.money has found an interesting niche for bringing donations into organizations. We’re exploring how to leverage their ability to connect with their community and work with them to identify donors who see education, and particularly teaching everyone to read, as a way they would like to see the world change.
All philanthropy is about giving to organizations that change the world in a way you find emotionally satisfying. We give to other organizations because they achieve goals we wish we could achieve.
Their financial model is super interesting for the philanthropic field. For organizations like ours, we’re excited to see those connections grow.
The broader the range of donors a nonprofit organization like ours has, the more successful we’ll be. The more donors we have, the more we’re exposed to their communities, and the higher chance we have of getting introduced to more families and children who need our help.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Reading in the United States has been on a downward trajectory for the last 40 years. We know how to teach all kids how to read. We’re teaching kids to read in 60-80 hours. We have a way of training our tutors to learn how to teach reading in about 20 hours. We no longer have excuses for why we’re not teaching all our children to read. We now have a way to scale and teach as many teachers and tutors as possible. It takes good programming, but it also takes funding.
Whether you’d like to give to LearnUp Centers, or support another organization using science to teach children to read, let’s go for it!
What’s the best way for individuals to get involved with & support LearnUp Centers?
We accept checks, credit cards… But getting enough people together to underwrite a scholarship and bring together enough resources to change a kid’s life through the gift of reading would be incredibly impactful.
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