SUMMER READING

East Nashville Hope Exchange helps stem the summer slide for atrisk kids

If you’re a parent, or even if you’re not, you’ve probably heard of the summer slide — when school kids fall behind in reading and math over the summer break — a phenomenon that is especially prevalent among low-income families. Fortunately for at-risk children on the East Side, an organization known as East Nashville Hope Exchange has the tools to help stem the summer slide.
     The Hope Exchange is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the literacy levels of East Nashville’s low-income children, a mission they’ve been pursuing for over a decade. The ability to read and write effectively is the bedrock upon which all learning is built; consequently, children lacking literacy skills often suffer profound emotional and psychological effects. A child with an outgoing personality and a desire to participate in class discussions can become withdrawn and uncooperative when asked to read aloud. Self-image issues and feelings of inadequacy can easily morph into behavioral problems. Children from low-income families where English is a second language find themselves becoming outcasts as they fall behind their peers in English comprehension and communication.
     These are just a few of the challenges East Nashville Hope Exchange regularly faces. Launched in 2004 as part of the St. Ann’s Episcopal Church’s Freedom School K-8 mentoring program, East Nashville Hope Exchange quickly evolved into a separate summer literacy program and became an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in 2010. Executive Director Ameshica Linsey explains literacy is a perishable skill, requiring reinforcement and nurturing.
     “Two-to-three months of achievement can be lost during the summer,” Linsey says. “That ‘summer slide’ is particularly common among low-income students because they lack an encouraging atmosphere and access to books that students from most middle-income families take for granted. We want to close the achievement gap between low-income and more affluent students, and it’s important to start closing that gap early.”
     East Nashville Hope Exchange’s summer literacy program is modeled on a program developed by Vanderbilt University. The program employs certified teachers and volunteer teaching assistants to combine classroom reading and fun activities for small groups of students. In addition, field trips to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Nashville Zoo, the Adventure Science Center, and other destinations provide cultural enrichment. Guest readers from the community also play an important role by broadening students’ perspectives with personal testimonials about the importance of literacy.
     “We also bring in the arts,” Linsey says. “We integrate music, visual art, and other areas that appeal to students who achieve higher in those areas than in literacy. That boosts their confidence and their desire to read.”
     Parental involvement is one of the most important elements. The focus beyond the individual student is embodied in the program’s theme, “My Family, My Community, My World.” In 2013, Nashville Hope Exchange launched its school-year program, supporting student learning throughout the year with monthly workshops and in-home visits by Hope Exchange volunteers. This combination provides training and support for parents and family members. Often parents face their own literacy challenges. In such cases, East Nashville Hope Exchange connects them with community adult literacy resources.
     “We’re here to serve the family as a whole,” Linsey says. “Family engagement is a key component to our success. We offer a family workshop once a month. Parents or family members learn how to boost their children’s confidence and encourage reading. It can be difficult at first, but parents learn how to establish routines, such as reading a book every night after dinner with their children. Parents become excited as they witness their child’s progress. Many parents tell me their child inspired them to read more.”
     The focus on both children and parents has an average success rate of 91 percent of students avoiding the summer slide by either maintaining or improving their reading skill level. Linsey, who has an undergraduate degree from Fisk University and an graduate degree from Tennessee State, says that the unique focus on both students and parents drew her to the East Nashville Hope Exchange.
     “I had been a director at a child care center serving kids in the inner city, and I knew how desperately they needed help,” Linsey says. “I saw parents that couldn’t read and had dropped out of high school. When I found out about the Hope Exchange’s programs — and especially how they work with both kids and parents — it was something that just grabbed my heart.”
     Since joining the Hope Exchange as executive director in December 2016, Linsey has managed the nonprofit’s programs and strategic planning, as well as fundraising, marketing, and community outreach. The last few years have been a time of particularly heavy growth for the program. Between 2014 and 2015, the summer program’s enrollment grew from 45 to 101. Over 175 volunteers donated 2,098 hours in 2016. While the East Nashville Hope Exchange advised and assisted the launch of a similar program by the Bordeaux North Nashville Literacy Partnership in the summer of 2016, its primary focus remains on the East Side.
     “We get requests from a lot of schools outside of the area, but there’s only so much we can do,” Linsey says. “We have six target schools in the Stratford and Maplewood clusters of East Nashville. Our recruitment liaisons talk to parents and teachers to identify those in need.
     “For this year, we plan to partner with as many Metro schools as we can to run summer programs on site at Ross Early Learning Center and Warner Enhanced Option Elementary School instead of St. Ann’s. I would like to expand our program even further so we can serve more students and their families, but that takes funding.”
     As with most nonprofits, adequate funding is a constant challenge. The East Nashville Hope Exchange currently receives 61 percent of its funding from grants and foundations; individual and corporate donations comprise the remainder. The organization’s recent annual wine tasting and silent auction fundraiser was a success, but new sources of revenue are essential for continued growth.
     “We’re trying to diversify our sources of funds so we’re not so dependent on grants,” Linsey says. “We want to get more individual community contributions, but that takes awareness. When people hear about our program, they’re blown away by what we are achieving.
     “Our students come from homes with so many challenges, and most kids want to avoid difficult tasks,” Linsey says. “If reading seems hard, they try to avoid it. Our job is to change that attitude. When I ask parents how Hope Exchange has affected their child, many say their child asks to read books while they previously didn’t like books at all. That’s the mission we hope to accomplish.”