Read To Succeed strives to close Asheville’s racial opportunity gap

SEEING SUCCESS: The co-executive directors of local literary nonprofit Read To Succeed, Jess McLean, left, and Ashley Allen, say the organization's recent growth is good news for young Black students who have often been left behind in traditional public schools. Photo courtesy of McLean

It’s no secret that reading is a vital part of any educational foundation.

In Asheville, Black students have lagged behind their white counterparts in literacy for decades, according to test scores over time. In 2009, inspired in part by the election of President Barack Obama, community activist Isaac Coleman and others established Read To Succeed Asheville/Buncombe to help close the literacy opportunity gap.

The organization saw immense growth over the next 10 years, says Co-executive Director Jess McLean. But its focus also shifted. Instead of addressing the opportunity gap, Read To Succeed worked to inspire all children to read.

More recently, the organization has returned to its original mission. Xpress sat down with McLean and the nonprofit’s new Co-executive Director Ashely Allen to discuss these changes and what it means for Asheville’s racial opportunity gap.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How has Read To Succeed changed and grown since the pandemic upended education?

McLean: The big things that changed were we got away from what had really become a reading buddy system [rather] than a tutoring thing. [It became] show up and read this nice book with this kid. We revised that training. So now, let’s look at the science of how children learn to read. We’re going to base our tutoring program in science, and our tutors are going to be equipped with evidence-based methods for supporting readers. It’s not about showing up with a book; we’re actually teaching reading. We also expanded our scope into the early childhood space. So before it was really just focused on K-3, but then we brought that to K-5, and children [from infants] to age 5.

Ashley, you started at Read To Succeed in July after 10 years at ACS. What excites you about this organization?

Allen: I’ve just been really invigorated by [the fact that this is a] local nonprofit. That means that we don’t have a national curriculum saying we have to do things a particular way without seeing our community, without seeing our kids, without knowing our school district. So I love that part of being able to shape programming to shape how we’re bringing opportunity and access to the families around here.

Talk about your emphasis on early education.

Allen: We know that lots of neural pathways are built [between the ages of] 0-5. That’s when vocabulary, background knowledge, lots of schema, even fine motor skills like how you grip the pencil and how you can form and write sentences is built. So if you can develop those skills early on, then they’re going to be more set up for success and kindergarten readiness. I did six years in kindergarten when I was with Asheville City Schools. So that kindergarten readiness piece is really close to my heart.

How do you train your instructors? Talk a little bit about your training program and how community outreach impacts your program.

Allen: The volunteers and the tutors who come to us are often white with disposable income and older. [We teach them] how to actually reach the children who have different lived experiences and how to honor that. So that’s a big piece of that tutoring program.

We also have our community engagement piece, which is just community access. So instead of saying, “Hey, we’re having this program, come to us,” we say, “Maybe you don’t have the transportation because of systemic barriers, maybe you don’t have the time because you’re working two jobs, but we can come to you. So here’s some games. Here’s some free books that feature diverse ranges of stories. Pick kids who look like your kids, who have families like your families. You get to see yourself centered in a story. Grab this book, take it home, it’s all free and brand new. Here’s this literacy game. Here’s food, here’s community. So that’s that community engagement piece.

This isn’t shallow where we are just giving you something every so often. We are coming in and training for free. And at that training, you’re going to eat the food. You’re going to be paid for your time and you’re going to leave with kits for your classroom. We are coming in and we’re giving your students book bundles for you to give away.

McLean: We have participated in at least 30 community and family reading events this year. And that participation, like Ashley said, is showing up when people invite us. So for example, we distributed about 500 book bundles over the past couple of weeks. And those book bundles feature these amazing Black books.

How are our public schools getting it wrong when trying to reach some parts of our community, and how are you attempting to bridge that gap with your tutors?

Allen: I don’t know about you, but I don’t show up to work if I don’t get paid. I love what I do. I love this work. It’s important, but I’m not going without a paycheck, right? And yet, we say, “Students, sit here for eight hours a day.” And we don’t reward them. We don’t provide them anything in the face of a narrative that says you won’t succeed at it anyway. So, then we expect them to sit down with us after school after they’ve done it for eight hours and have a great attitude about it. And we get frustrated as adults when they don’t.

How important is representation, and how is Read To Succeed improving Black representation in leadership? 

Allen: Oftentimes in Asheville City Schools at the majority of the schools where I taught, I was the only Black teacher. I was surrounded by Black custodians who were wonderful Black instructional assistants, but I was the only Black lead teacher, and that’s lonely. And a lot of these students are surrounded by peers who don’t look like them, who are judging them or have preconceived notions. All of these are barriers that we have to overcome, and we do every day.

I think representation always matters. I think it’s always a key detail. And somebody who has a similar lived experience as you, someone who moves in the world like you is going to instruct in a way that you understand. So when I train the tutors, I talk about how oftentimes we put the burden of translation on the student. … Your job as an instructor should always be to act as the translator and remove that burden from the students.

McLean: We are centering Black voices, Black voices are in the decision-making space. Our board of directors is majority Black. And that’s also been a big change over the past couple of years.

When we think about volunteerism, much comes out of a system of white supremacy. I’m this white person who has enough time and money to do something for free. And I’m going to go out and help these communities that I’ve played a part in [hurting], and I’m speaking as a white person. So Read To Succeed thought, “What if we shift that model?” Yes, if people want to volunteer, please bring it on. But also how are we seeking out Black community members and paying them for their time and saying, “Oh, you want to be involved with kids, you have done this work before, you have an interest, you want to train, let’s pay you to do that and pay you to be a part of this work as well.”

How have you grown?

McLean: Our budget has grown because everyone in our community really fosters a culture of generosity and abundance. Everybody who works with us gets paid a living wage. All of our full-time employees have health benefits, all of our full-time and part-time employees also get tech stipends. It is absolutely foolish not to. And they want to be in our organization because we’re independent, because we get to make decisions. And because we are transparent about everything we do and funders want to support that. So that’s a big part of why our budget has grown. It’s because we actually pay people for their time and honor what they do.

What else do we need to change as a community of educators to close the opportunity gap?

Allen: I think one, we have to stop acting like it’s a pie. Like if somebody gets more, we’re going to have less. There’s abundance here, there’s enough for everyone, nobody’s giving up something. So I think that’s the first thing and also what Jess said about centering Black voices. Too often, we have white people in leadership who [are] like “I get it, I can do this, let me come from this place of altruism.” Nobody white can ever set me free. But they can come alongside me and support me and undergird me as I do this work.

McLean: We’d love to say that we’re working with the community to raise a city of readers. Children don’t just learn to read at home. They don’t just learn to read in the classroom, although that is the most important place. They don’t just learn to read after school or with a tutor. This has to be a community-powered effort.



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One thought on “Read To Succeed strives to close Asheville’s racial opportunity gap

  1. Voirdire

    Read to Succeed, Ashley Allen, Jess McLean… really really awesome. Thank you for all the great and important work you and all your staff and volunteers do. Just awesome!

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