There are more than one million students enrolled in New York City public schools, making it the largest school system in the United States. Yet each student enrolled is unique and enters school each day with varying needs. Thus, there is a general consensus that providing targeted and individualized support to students is crucial to their academic success. Furthermore, implementing this support early in their education can impact students during critical stages in their development and benefit their academic performance for years to come.
Since 2015, I have served on the junior board for Read Ahead, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that New York City elementary school students have the skills they need for academic and life-long success. Read Ahead’s program is centered on one-on-one lunchtime reading-based mentoring sessions between students and volunteer mentors. Students are recommended by their teachers or school staff to participate in the program because they are reading below grade level, English Language Learners, or in need of social or emotional support to boost their self-confidence, their classroom performance, or their interest in reading.
Proskauer is one of more than 30 corporate partners from which Read Ahead recruits its volunteer mentors and who provide the funding needed to fuel the Read Ahead program. Corporate funding helps underwrite the costs of the program’s on-site staffing, books and other necessary supplies. During the current school year, at least 20 Proskauer volunteers participate in weekly mentoring sessions with their student mentee at a local elementary school, PS 51, located a short walk away from the office. However, Read Ahead is committed to offering its program to as many schools as possible, including those located far from corporate offices. This is where the junior board steps in.
Each year the junior board raises funds to support three schools – one in Chinatown and two in West Harlem – located a great distance from any potential corporate partners. The challenges the students at these three schools face are not insignificant. At PS 130 in Chinatown, more than 25% of the Read Ahead students are English Language Learners and many of their families do not speak English at home. In the two Harlem schools, more than 90% of the Read Ahead students live in poverty and more than 10% of those schools’ total students are homeless. There is vast ongoing research that examines the affects that poverty has on child development and education. Proskauer hosted a panel discussion with Partnership with Children on this very topic in January. Coupled with the language or cultural barriers many of these students face, there is a vital need for support and mentorship beyond what one classroom teacher can give.
While Read Ahead’s mentorship program is rooted in reading, the areas of focus are not limited to literacy; they aim to cultivate and foster the social-emotional skills students can develop under the mentorship of a caring adult. Students and mentors are carefully matched, taking into account each student’s needs and the individual strengths of each mentor. Once matched, mentors and students often remain together for multiple years, strengthening their bond and the impact of the program.
Recognizing the importance of such a program in high-need schools, Read Ahead has charged its junior board with raising the additional funds needed for the three schools in Chinatown and Harlem. I am proud to say that year after year we continue to meet this growing need. While the full extent of Read Ahead’s impact might not be felt until later in a student’s academic career, the program continues to grow with now more than 1,000 students who eagerly await the arrival of their mentor each week. For this reason and many others I am grateful that Proskauer embraces the students in our neighborhood and supports my work on the junior board.