Skip to main content
February 13, 2019

Bridging More Than Just a Reading Gap

It’s tough to scale a fence designed to keep one group in, and another out.

Likewise, scaling an educational system designed around racial segregation has left many children of color still climbing.

Even though numbers are improving, more than half of all U.S. children aren’t proficient readers by fourth grade. More alarming, 81 percent of African American children aren’t, and Hispanic children lag close behind, according to the latest National Kids Count data.

The numbers are worse for boys.

Income level and parent educational attainment are factors, but it’s more layered than what can be plotted on a graph.

Through early intervention and trust-building, Leading Men is getting more children ready to read, and more men prepared to get them there.

“It tells a different narrative when a man of color is part of the instruction,” said Ivan C. Douglas Jr., program manager at The Literacy Lab, the nonprofit that developed the Leading Men program. “They can say the same thing as the teacher and the student may receive it differently.”

The gap isn’t just in early reading skills, but also among teachers.

The vast majority of early-education teachers are women, often white. That’s why the program’s focus is on men of color.

In 2016, Leading Men partnered with Washington, D.C., public schools to bridge both gaps in early reading and teaching demographics. For example, recent high school graduates began tutoring in preschool classrooms for a year, exposing them to a career in education while nurturing early literacy and kindergarten readiness.

The program has since spread to 122 schools in five states.

The Leading Men curriculum complements traditional letter and number drills with sensitivity and encouragement in mind.

“If they get a letter wrong, I don’t say, ‘You’re wrong,’ I instead affirm their effort and patience and help them try again,” said Tony Zelaya, a Leading Men tutor.

“During read-aloud time, we ask them to critically think about the story and ask them questions. We’re not just reading. They’re contributing as well,” he added.

Zelaya didn’t imagine his favorite part of the day would be the morning, when 20 4- and 5-year-olds clambered for him, ready, with his help, to scrawl their names on paper.

But the 20-year-old tutor, American-born and raised by parents from El Salvador, is grateful.

The program not only increases kindergarten readiness in vulnerable children, but it also intercepts the heavy burden of relying on student loans because Leading Men will cover 95 percent of Zelaya’s college tuition, increasing the likelihood he’ll seek a career in education.

Considering that the majority of U.S. children are projected to be of a race other than non-Hispanic white by 2020, diversifying the teacher pipeline matters.

“Spending just one year with a teacher of the same race can move the dial on one of the most frustratingly persistent gaps in educational attainment — that of low-income black boys,” wrote Nicholas Papageorge, co-author of a study titled “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers.”

The study found that having at least one black teacher in early grades reduced a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent.

“If someone who looks like them is doing something big, they’ll believe in themselves more,” Zelaya said.

This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at

Share this post