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Hidden Gems: Meet Mary Ellen Isaacs of Literacy First

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mary Ellen Isaacs.

Hi Mary Ellen, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I started my career as a bilingual reading teacher in 1979. I was inspired in college by an internship with an educational non-profit that worked with children and adults with learning disabilities. I was immediately drawn to helping young students become readers and watching how the world opened up to them through literacy. After working in NYC for several years in a center that did reading evaluations and tutoring, I became uncomfortable with the fact that students who were referred to our center were disproportionately male, typically about 3rd-5th grade, and mostly students of color. I kept wondering what had happened in their earlier years in school that so many were struggling beyond third grade. I wanted to learn more about reading acquisition and how to prevent future reading difficulties. At the time, my husband had just accepted a job at UT Austin and I had the opportunity to pursue my Ph.D. in Language and Literacy studies. I studied the science of teaching reading and best practices in reading acquisition. And, this has been the focus of all of my work since 1996. I began working with Literacy First in 1997, first as the bilingual tutor trainer, and then as the director in 2002. I truly believe I have the best job—working with dedicated AmeriCorps and paraprofessional tutors, building a team of literacy experts to guide and shape the program, supporting underserved schools with highly effective early literacy interventions—all with the goal of making sure that all K-2nd grade students have what they need to become strong readers so they can read to learn for the rest of their lives.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
When I began my career as a reading teacher, I never expected that I would become the Executive Director of a literacy non-profit! I always share this perspective with our tutors, who are typically at the beginning of their own careers. I believe that there are many directions our lives can take and that by following my heart and my passion for literacy, I have landed exactly where I need to be! Making the transition from program coordinator for Literacy First to becoming the director was probably the most challenging part of my career. It was a leap of faith, and I have been so fortunate to have amazing mentors along the way who helped me to grow into a leadership role. As all non-profit directors can attest, there is no one year that is like another. But, my “true-north” compass has been focusing on my own leadership journey and on how we can best use the resources, talents, and time of our tutors and staff to affect lasting change for the students and families we serve. In the past two years, our staff have been deeply engaged in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training, starting with ourselves as individuals and beginning the important work of becoming a more inclusive organization. The work is challenging, but I believe it is critically important work for all non-profit leaders and staff in order to begin to address long-standing disparities in education.

As you know, we’re big fans of Literacy First. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
Literacy First provides intensive and effective tutoring to young striving readers (K-2nd grade) in underserved schools to ensure they are reading well by third grade. Every year, we help over 1000 students learn to read so they can read to learn. For the past 26 years, we have partnered with AmeriCorps which has allowed us to engage full-time tutors who are doing a year of national service. We are also training full-time paraprofessional tutors hired by partner districts to deliver our interventions for K-2 students and training their staff to implement and sustain the program. This is one way we are expanding to reach more students.

There are several factors that set Literacy First apart from other community-based tutoring initiatives. First, our tutors are highly trained. They receive ten days of pre-service training and weekly on-site coaching and supervision across the year—a total of more than 50 hours of literacy training. Second, our tutoring curriculum is based on national reading research and the science of teaching reading—we target the most critical early literacy skills using instructional best practices. Third, our tutoring is individualized and intensive—tutors work 1:1 with each student every day for 30 minutes until they catch up to grade-level benchmarks. Fourth, we use data to drive instruction—we monitor students’ progress weekly and share this data with teachers, reading specialists and school administrators. And finally, we are a fully bilingual program (English/Spanish) and we are able to support our districts’ dual language and bi-literacy development goals.

We know that this approach works—multiple independent evaluations have found that Literacy First students score higher on early reading tests and maintain those gains the following year(s). On average, more than 80% of students we tutor, who start the year below grade level, will make accelerated and measurable progress in reading skills. More than 50% will reach or exceed grade-level benchmarks. And, Literacy First students who reach grade level go on to pass the STAAR reading assessment at a 30% higher rate than their peers not in the program. Early intervention works.

I’m most proud of the work of our tutors and staff to develop and implement a truly effective early literacy intervention program that moves the needle on achievement for so many students—helping to bridge the opportunity gap that our students experience in their early years. When students read well by third grade, we have set them on a path to success in school and in life.

What’s next?
We just completed a strategic plan that charts an ambitious path to grow from serving 1000 students to reaching 3500 students by 2024. We are expanding the ways in which we work with districts to make our interventions available to more students. We are also working to recruit more local adults from our school communities as tutors. Serving as a Literacy First tutor is an amazing workforce and professional development opportunity for anyone with a heart for service and an interest in education. And many of our tutors go on to become classroom teachers through our partnership with Region 13 Teacher Certification program. But, regardless of their career path, our tutors gain an appreciation of the critical role of public education in our democracy.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
All photos by Phil Swann

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