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Louisville nonprofit aims to tackle racial and economic inequities in education

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

A majority of students in Jefferson County Public Schools who are struggling academically are youth of color and those who receive free and reduced lunches. Experts say that’s because they lack access to resources they need to thrive. 

In an effort to address barriers to success, the Decode Project has been providing literacy instruction to those who need it most for free or on a sliding scale since 2019. 

Lindsy Wallace is the nonprofit’s development coordinator. She’s responsible for raising awareness about the initiative and garnering support to expand it. 

“It's not that the students we work with aren't high-achieving, aren't incredibly brilliant, aren't bright. They don't have access to what they actually need to be successful when it comes to literacy,” Wallace said. “Literacy affects all areas of a person's life.”

Currently, there are more than a dozen mentors stationed at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in the West End, Wallace said. The mentors form individualized learning plans and work with youth one-on-one to help them grow and learn at their own pace. 

Wallace said most of the mentors are paid honor students who are part of the University of Louisville’s Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Scholars Programs. She said they’re trained in navigating racial biases, providing trauma-informed care and applying the science of reading. The approach focuses on building foundational skills and employing teaching strategies that target the way kids learn to help them get the most out of a curriculum.

“Now they have someone who they view as an educator, who they have a positive experience with, someone they're meeting with twice a week, and typically, somebody who looks like them, which is also hugely important for our students as well,” Wallace said. “We're not saying ‘during third grade, you should be able to read this, and that's what we're gonna work with you on.’ We're gonna meet them where they are.”

Wallace said, this year, literacy mentors are also slated to work with students from Byck Elementary School in Russell, as well as students from the Play Cousins Collective, a support network for Black Louisvillians that centers culture, generational experiences and relationship building.

“Some of them are future educators. But that's not required,” Wallace said. “Whether they're future educators or not… just having their eyes open to these inequities that exist in the system, whatever field they go into as adults, they're gonna carry that with them and, hopefully, have a new view through which they're seeing the world.”

According to the latest available data from the Kentucky Department of Education, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds had test scores that trailed well behind those from economically stable backgrounds. 

Last month, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio highlighted learning inequities among students and the district’s achievement gap during a presentation to a bipartisan group of state lawmakers. 

“We've got to improve our outcomes in JCPS, especially our achievement gap. But we all know, as many of you are educators right here, one of the number one correlations with achievement is poverty,” Pollio said. “We also have over 6,000 homeless students in Jefferson County Public Schools. Also, about 13% of JCPS [students] are English language learners, which is a dramatic increase from about 10 or 12 years ago.”

Pollio added that the achievement gap will continue to grow unless the state and local governments overhaul long-standing barriers. He said that starts with repairing the district’s  damaged foundation, stemming from a lack of investment in teacher salaries, school infrastructure and selective investment in resources and opportunities for students. Pollio added, work on some of these areas has already been set in motion. 

“Students who have the least amount of resources in their home need to have the most amount of resources in their schools. That needs to happen,” Pollio said. “Our teachers will be paid more to be in high-poverty, challenging schools, as well as our principals and other administrators the same way.”

Wallace with the Decode Project said falling behind in school carries a heavier toll on students’ lives than just academically. 

“Students will often begin to act out behaviorally in an attempt to avoid being put on blast in front of their peers for not being able to read,” Wallace. “And so then they end up in the counselor's office. And a whole domino effect sort of begins from there, in terms of discipline.”

Unnecessarily harsh policies and discriminatory disciplinary measures that excessively punish or criminalize acting out and breaking school rules, as well as on-site law enforcement, are some of the factors that contribute to what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s a national pattern where young people, disproportionately Black and brown, are ushered into the legal and criminal justice systems.

Next week, the Decode Project is hosting an adult spelling bee fundraising event at TEN20 Craft Brewery in Butchertown in an effort to keep the mentorship program going. 

“Most of the students we work with can't afford structured literacy instruction. Almost everything that we offer to the community is free,” Wallace said. All the funds raised will go towards our mission of equity in education and making sure that students in the West End have access to the literacy instruction that they need to thrive and be successful in whatever way that means for them.”

Wallace said the ultimate goal is to open a literacy center in the West End and make instruction services available to students across Jefferson County. 

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