Promoting Childhood Literacy

By Sam Smith

Literacy impacts every aspect of people’s lives, and the United States is facing a crisis in basic literacy.

Roughly 617 million children didn’t achieve minimum proficiency in reading in 2017, and about 40% of U.S. first graders entered “well below grade level in reading” at the beginning of the 2020 school year (up from 27% in 2019). Literacy is an important predictor of good health, strong civic engagement, and higher incomes. It is crucial to these students’ future success, and Walden’s Center for Social Change is working to rewrite those statistics.

Isaac Cudjoe is the center’s chief of staff and director. As part of Walden’s Mobilize for Good initiative, he and his team seek out alumni who are living their missions of positive social change in their communities. To help increase literacy rates, Cudjoe came up with the idea of installing Walden Community Libraries—mini libraries offering free book exchanges—across the country. “These libraries help us connect with communities who need our help,” Cudjoe says. “Sixty-one percent of low-income homes don’t have books for their children. We have to create some intervention.”

The community library initiative supports two important pillars underpinning Walden’s mission for positive social change: literacy and equity. “It’s so important for children to begin reading at a young age, and our hope is that these community libraries will be a catalyst for others to join us to help improve education for all students,” Cudjoe says. “Mobilize for Good is this amazing opportunity for Walden to show the world that we’re committed to our mission, and these libraries are one of the many things that Walden is doing around the nation and around the globe to exemplify what it means to use Education for Good, to be a social change agent.”

The Beechfield Story

Walden partnered with Beechfield Elementary/Middle School Assistant Principal Kelly Wilhelm ’13, MS in Education (MSEd), and her colleague, Principal Kelly Carideo, to tackle the issue of literacy in the Baltimore school. The city currently claims one of the lowest literacy rates in the U.S., and Carideo and Wilhelm are working to rewrite that story. The challenge is complex, but accessibility plays a large role. Many Beechfield parents work several jobs and aren’t able to be home to help with homework or to encourage reading. The nearest library is a mile away, but since most students walk, getting there is difficult. The school’s own library doesn’t have a librarian, and teachers are the only ones who use it. When you compound these factors with the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, access to reading material and reading help shrinks even further.

Carideo and Wilhelm recognize that books open up worlds their students can’t otherwise access. Together with Cudjoe, they brought those books to Baltimore on International Literacy Day on September 8, 2021, a beautiful day in the city. A twisted arch of brightly hued balloons framed the red brick Beechfield Elementary/Middle School as a group of young students watched Carideo cut a ribbon with oversized scissors. She then opened the doors to the first Walden Community Library, and everyone could feel that this mini library was the beginning of something big.

Opening New Worlds With Books

The library was filled with about 100 books chosen by Carideo and donated by Walden. After she opened the doors to the library, Carideo sat and read to her scholars. The stories welcome children in with diverse authors and characters that they can relate to—books like Tami Charles’ All Because You Matter, Vashti Harrison’s Think Big, Little One, and Oge Mora’s ¡Gracias, Omu! Their focus on diversity, empathy, equity, inclusion, and social justice supports the missions of both Beechfield and Walden.

Wilhelm brings these two worlds together. She has been an integral part of Beechfield for 16 years, first as an elementary school teacher and more recently as assistant principal for the past three years. Her own three children attend the school. “I moved here with the hope and vision of working and living in a community [for a long time]; I truly feel like it takes this village of people who are invested in that community to really change and make a difference, and I believe that Principal Kelly Carideo and students check out a book from their new mini library.

I can have an impact on scholars that supports and changes the trajectory of their life plan,” Wilhelm says. She credits the Beechfield community with effecting social change as well. “I feel like it’s a really exciting time. The villagers are working together, and the school is connecting with its associations and building momentum. I’m feeling this movement in the air like something good is about to happen,” she says. When the library arrived, Wilhelm felt it too. “They’ve really been enjoying it!” she says. “Everyone has a home here and is welcome here, and the books reflect that.”

Bringing Books Home

Cudjoe agrees, and he adds that students don’t need to return the books. This is very powerful for them, especially since most don’t already have books at home. “They say, ‘I get to keep this, this is mine!’ I’ve seen a lot of kids very happy about that access,” Cudjoe says. To date, Walden has installed three libraries: one at Beechfield Elementary/ Middle School, one at the Grady Burn Treatment and Care Center in Atlanta, and one at the Oxford Home for Children in North Carolina.

“We’re hoping that everyone recognizes the value of simply being able to read, because it connects to so many other aspects of our lives,” Cudjoe says . “Now we turn the keys back over to the community”.