Playing an active role in our local communities is a long-standing Southern Jewish tradition. Our community, Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia, wanted to do even more with community engagement—so we reached out to Malkie Schwartz at the ISJL. With that help and guidance, our Community Engagement committee has been able to build an amazing relationship with the students and staff of Rothschild Leadership Academy (RLA), a local public middle school that serves students in 6th-8th grade.
During the summer, the committee approached Dr. Mike Forte, the Principal of Rothschild Leadership Academy and asked this critical community engagement question: What do you need?
Dr. Forte responded: “Help the kids read.”
And so began our community’s implementation of the ISJL’s literacy program Read, Lead, Succeed.
Read, Lead, Succeed is a program first piloted in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re excited to now be piloting it here in Columbus, Georgia. Read, Lead, Succeed uses I See Sam phonetics based reading materials. The I See Sam curriculum was designed to help young elementary school students so we’ve modified the program to better fit the needs of 6th graders. For example, our students read individually for privacy as well as personalized instruction. Additionally, we have added an “attitude assessment” that students take when they first begin the program and after completing other predesignated milestones. The program deftly integrates learning with a positive environment that fosters relationships and a love of reading.
Many of our volunteer team members were concerned the I See Sam system was too simple for the students. We quickly learned that there are many students who read below grade level and this program helped address gaps in their reading abilities. It comes down to that same question: What do you need? This program, and the system behind it, is filling a need.
Our Community Engagement Committee members have been personally impacted by this program. I asked some of them to share their thoughts and reflections:
“The success of Read, Lead, Succeed at Rothschild Leadership Academy is a marvelous manifestation of the trust we forged by listening. We listened to Dr. Forte describe the needs at his school. We listened to his priorities. After the commitment and excellence we showed through the gardening project, he and his staff were receptive to our suggestion to help in a deeper way.” – Mark Rice
“Initially, I was concerned that the books would be too easy for them … I was surprised to see that in fact, they were the level they were reading at. My heart went out to them. Their improvement and eagerness to learn each week motivated me even more. I am so proud of them and I know they will continue to improve. The need for someone to spend time with them reading is vital. The programs straightforward approach was very helpful.” – Suzanne Reed Fine
In the future, the Community Engagement Committee of Columbus, Georgia hopes to expand Read, Lead, Succeed by adding volunteers and students to the program at RLA. We also envision launching the program in the elementary schools that feed into RLA. We believe that preventing students from falling behind in elementary school will lead to greater success in middle school and beyond. We are proud for our Southern Jewish congregation to continue playing our part, working in our community and helping meet the needs that are right here at home.
Jews across the world are preparing to sit down with their families and read the Haggadah this Passover. Although this is annual experience, it is never exactly the same as the year previous. In fact, for those attending a Seder at someone else’s home, there is no telling what the reading of the Haggadah will mean to their hosts, and they likely won’t know until the Seder begins. Reading the Haggadah can, after all, mean decoding the Hebrew words, or speeding through the text and getting right to the meal, or long discussions that allow us to better comprehend the story, or discussions around how the texts apply to our lives and current events.
But whatever the interpretation, at its core Passover is a holiday that revolves around a story (the Exodus), a book (the Haggadah), and a concept (freedom).
For many Jews, literacy is a priority. Many congregations across the South champion the cause of literacy in their community. We shake our heads in disappointment and sadness when we talk about children who don’t have someone to read with them regularly. But, when we talk about literacy, we are talking about a few dimensions: decoding, fluency, comprehension and application. Decoding refers to associating sounds with letters and blending them to create words. Fluency refers to the pace of reading and the ability of a reader to read a word without forgetting the words that came immediately before it. Comprehension is the level at which a reader understands the meaning of the words. Stronger readers will also apply what they read to their life’s knowledge and experience. They will determine whether it is consistent with what they know and have experienced in the past or whether it speaks to something new.
When we read with children, we might know how advanced their reading abilities are. However, particularly with struggling readers, it isn’t always clear. In fact, there are times when as adults who have been reading for a while, we wonder whether our time reading with children is productive, whether we made them feel badly because they couldn’t read as well as we had hoped they would. But, we can learn a few tips that help ensure that both the child and the adult have a positive reading experience. There is a lot of information out there but the proven tips are usually gleaned from research by individuals with the specific expertise of teaching reading. This is just one resource with reading tips, and you can certainly find some more by searching the internet for “research based reading tips or interventions.”
I wish all who will read the Haggadah this Passover, a meaning-filled Seder. I would also like to wish us all renewed energy as we continue to battle illiteracy in our world and particularly in our communities. After all, the ability to read brings not only stories and books to life – but also brings readers a very real freedom.