This Denver program is tackling the literacy gap. Trump’s budget proposal puts it at risk

Each One Teach One was created a decade ago to narrow the 30-million-word literacy gap for low-income students and students learning English throughout Denver.

Greenwood students Ja'zione and Arinze practice spelling the word "possessions" at the Each One Teach One literacy program. (Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)
Greenwood students Ja'zione and Arinze practice spelling the word "possessions" at the Each One Teach One literacy program. (Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)
Greenwood students Ja’zione and Arinze practice spelling the word “possessions” at the Each One Teach One literacy program. (Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

By Marissa PageChalkbeat

School has been out for weeks at Marie L. Greenwood Academy in Montbello, but on a recent weekday morning three students sit around a table littered with neon-hued notecards and richly illustrated books. They listen attentively as longtime Denver Public Schools teacher Mary Ann Bash leads a lesson on “Ubiquitous,” a picture book about ancient organisms.

“What’s the oldest life form?” Bash asks.

The table is silent for a moment. Then one student, a soon-to-be fifth grader named Marissa, lights up. “Bacteria!” she shouts. And she’s right.

“She learned that from a book in 3rd grade,” Bash said. “They don’t forget anything they’ve learned here.”

This level of comprehension is exactly the objective of Each One Teach One, an after-school and summer program Bash created a decade ago to narrow the 30-million-word literacy gap for low-income students and students learning English throughout Denver. Now, all that is at risk as the federal program that is the main funding source for Each One Teach One and programs like it nationwide will be cut if the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget passes in its current form.

Already, Each One Teach One is coping with budget problems. Its initial five-year federal grant expired at the end of April, and the U.S. Department of Education denied the program’s application for a waiver that would have extended funding for another year. As a result, Bash said she had to cap summer enrollment — and will not be able to run after-school programming for the 2017-18 school year.

Bash said the federal grant funded 51 percent of Each One Teach One in previous summers, which was supplemented this year with a combination of private funding and DPS support.

All of the after-school programming, which includes a horticulture club, biking club, literacy service and English classes for parents learning the language, was federally funded. Bash said Each One Teach One’s after-school program will cease to exist unless it can find an alternate funding source.

The program, which combines intensive literacy training with hands-on activities such as art, gardening and biking, started in 2007 at College View Elementary in southwest Denver. Variations on the program have since run in seven schools, and Each One Teach One has operated at Greenwood in the primarily Latino Montbello neighborhood for the past eight years. The summer program runs mornings through the end of June.

Each One Teach One also includes instruction for parents for whom English is not their first language. Some of these parents in turn teach sections of the program’s classes in Spanish and English.

Students work in small groups of up to five, diving into thick picture books rife with illustrations. As they learn new vocabulary words, many based off the drawings and not solely found in the text, they practice spelling and use. Once they’ve learned a word, they write them on color-coded index cards — “keys to the future,” as Bash calls them — and carry them on lanyards.

Bash said she writes all of Each One Teach One’s curriculum and selects the books, which explore themes of the natural world and “giving back to your community.”

“We’ll talk about a word in the book like tendrils, and then we’ll go out into the garden and see what a tendril actually looks like,” said Micheala Carbonneau, a first grade teacher at Oakland Elementary and first-time Each One Teach One instructor. “It goes beyond the book’s vocabulary… They actually experience these words in a meaningful way.”

Closing the literacy gap for students learning English takes a lot of time and individualized attention. According to data from the 2014-16 school years, 58 percent of Each One Teach One participants narrowed the 30-million-word gap, which is believed to increase over time without rigorous instruction.

“The gap gets bigger and bigger for students that had less of this rich oral learning,” Bash said. “When they don’t have that, they don’t get as much out of their classroom instruction, and then they go home and don’t get it reinforced and the gap just gets bigger.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.