Consortium strengthens the Village Project at Elon, UNCG, Winston-Salem State

Students, educators and “It Takes a Village” Project stakeholders from three universities meet to discuss ways to improve literacy for struggling readers.

Elon’s Village Project made sense to Josephine Brown, and she wanted her grandchildren to be part of a program that helps struggling readers improve.

“I did everything I knew with educating these kids, and I was at a dead end,” Brown told the group gathered Dec. 2 at the “It Takes a Village” Consortium hosted by Winston-Salem State University.

The purpose of the consortium was to share stories and ideas to strengthen the programs at Elon, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Winston-Salem State University. More than 100 people participated, including students majoring in education as well as faculty and administrators from all three universities and Village Project stakeholders.

Brown secured spots in Elon’s “It Takes a Village” Project for all of her grandchildren. This past semester, they participated in Reading in the Village as well as Science in the Village and Music in the Village. Each program was held for six- week intervals at May Memorial Library, on Elon’s campus and First Presbyterian Church in downtown Burlington, N.C.

Brown wanted her grandchildren to grow and learn, and she was not disappointed with the results.

“I thank Elon for what they did,” she said. “They taught us knowledge. They gave us opportunity. They taught my grandchildren that if you are in the valley, you can get to the mountain.”

Now in its fifth year and with more than 500 children served, Elon’s Village Project, which pairs education majors with children for weekly tutoring sessions, serves as a model for other universities. UNCG started a program two years ago, and Winston-Salem State’s Village began this fall. In addition, Concordia University in Portland, Ore., has replicated the program.

“Children with reading difficulties are among the first to disconnect from school because the issue they find to be the most difficult— reading—is most fundamental to their school success. So it behooves all of us to work together to find solutions for those students for whom reading is such a daunting task,” said Associate Professor Jean Rattigan-Rohr, who conceptualized and developed the Village Project and serves as the director of the Center for Access and Success at Elon.

The program gives Elon education majors the opportunity to assess individual reading challenges in children, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. They also develop and show parents, who are required to participate, techniques they can use at home to help improve reading skills.

“The secret sauce of this program is the involvement of parents,” said President Leo M. Lambert who attended the consortium along with Executive Vice President Gerry Francis. “It’s the stroke of genius.”

Lambert emphasized that the stakeholders all working together are essential to building a successful community program.

“It really does take a village to put this partnership together,” he said. “… I couldn’t be prouder watching the Village unfold on Elon’s campus. I’ve also been inspired observing our education students as teachers.”

Elon received a generous grant from the Switzerland-based Oak Foundation in 2011, which allowed the program to expand to other universities. Other community partners, including Wells Fargo Bank, Barnes & Noble, Alamance Community College and the staff of First Presbyterian Church and May Memorial Library all have played a role in the program’s success.

The Oak Foundation is committed to funding programs that help children with learning differences, said Dana Brinson, Oak Foundation program officer.

“The Village program does so much more than connect pre-service teachers with struggling readers,” Brinson said. “It connects families. … It builds resources in the community.”

Donna Cannon, principal of Diggs-Latham Elementary in Forsyth County, said since UNCG started the Village Project, parents, who she didn’t normally see at school, started showing up and bonds were forged.

“Our UNCG teachers were absolutely incredible,” Cannon said. “They could have come and just done their tutoring, but they built relationships.”

But it was the work itself that had the biggest impact: Children, who previously had struggled with reading, started loving it.

“When you talk to me about ‘It Takes a Village’ Project, I will say this works,” Cannon said. “It works because of people and students believing they can learn to read, and they will learn to read.”

There were 30 Elon education majors who attended the consortium.

“It exposed us to diverse experiences and opinions,” said Leigh Ihler ’14. “It let us reflect on own teaching and provided ideas for the future.”

Elissa Krapf ’14 appreciated learning about how the program works in other communities. She said Elon’s Village Project gave her the chance to work with parents—an experience she knows will benefit her once she gets her teaching license.

“It helped me understand the importance of building mutual respect between the tutors and parents,” Krapf said. “We were able to build a relationship centered around the student—a process that eventually will need to be replicated with 22 parents.”

Elon will host the next Village Project consortium in 2014, as the three schools of education within the consortium continue to find ways to improve the literacy skills of struggling students in the region.