Ward 8 Gets First Power Lunch Program

US Coast Guard Employees Mentor Students at Savoy Elementary School to Promote Better Reading Habits

Mentor and student on Savoy Elementary’s first day of power lunch sessions. Photo: Everybody Wins! DC

On a Tuesday afternoon in March, Rosemary Dixon, a third grader at Savoy Elementary School in historic Anacostia, spends her lunch with Jeff Lester, an employee at the United States Coast Guard. In their second session of weekly lunch dates they both recognize their mutual love for pizza and books. “Right now we're working on Judy Moody,” said Lester, who volunteers with the power lunch program led by nonprofit Everybody Wins! DC. 

Dixon and Lester are one of over a dozen duos gathered in the library after being selected for the program’s launch in February. Teachers recommended students who struggle with reading or could benefit from an extra boost to take their skills to the next level. Mentors were given the opportunity to volunteer through a partnership between Everybody Wins! DC and the Coast Guard, which is housed a few miles up the road from Savoy. Each year in the program students will have the opportunity to read at least 30 books outside of the classroom. 

In a city like DC, being a good citizen means taking the time to give back, and the options for that are limitless. While Lester had never previously volunteered with children, he thought the power lunch program would be a natural fit. “I've got a daughter the same age and I felt like I’ve done pretty good work with my own daughter, teaching her how to read and telling her stories and things like that, so I thought it was a good way to break free from work for an hour and be able to contribute,” he said.  

Early Reading Makes a Difference 

While four hours a month may not seem like much for Lester, his time spent with Dixon will have a lasting impact. The District’s public school system has a long history of students with failing standardized test scores and chart-topping rates of high school dropouts. City data in 2013 revealed that 58 percent of public school students graduated on time compared to 79 percent of DC students who attended charter schools. 

Often something as simple as an investment in reading from an early age can solve academic and social setbacks for youth. “Those students who are not reading at least by fourth grade are generally on track not to graduate,” explained Lucinda Mulzac, program director at Everybody Wins! DC. And 80 percent of students who end up in the juvenile justice system are not literate and sometimes have not really been properly diagnosed, she said. “A large percentage of our children who are [in the criminal justice system] have not been able to have someone say to them that reading is important and that you can succeed,” she added. “And just building on that foundation of reading, being able to advocate for yourself, being able to establish goals that say you will graduate and hopefully you will go on to college and finish college can thereby shift the paradigm in your own community or your own family,” she said. 

It Takes a Community 

Youth on some sides of town have it even worse. In 2012 a list of the District’s lowest performing schools was released in Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s five-year strategic plan, “A Capital Commitment.” The plan contained a pledge to increase proficiency rates at these 40 schools by 40 percentage points no later than the 2016-17 academic year. Of the 21 elementary schools listed, over half were in Ward 8, including Savoy. 

“This area is what we call East of the River, and unfortunately there are some negative things happening in the neighborhood,” said Tiffany Dyson, librarian at Savoy, who has worked aggressively for the past five years to combat a series of elements that could stop her students from adopting good reading habits. “You have to work so much harder to promote reading when you're competing against video games and television,” she remarked. “And then it’s twice as hard if you're not getting a budget to buy books that students enjoy. It's a battle that we continue to fight across the district – trying to get budgets for school libraries – and to me, I can’t even wrap my head around a school that’s in the bottom 40 schools in the District and not even having a budget. It just does the students a disservice.”  

Over the years Dyson has personally applied for grants, received book donations from authors, and thought of creative ways to bring new resources to the library. But she recognizes that pushing a passion for reading is not her sole responsibility. “What makes up a school community is being able to work together with parents, students, and the faculty,” she declared. 

At the first series of power lunches in Ward 8, Dyson was also grateful to welcome the Coast Guard employees to Savoy’s tribe. “I think the most important thing for the kids in this particular community is to see positive role models,” she said, “and to have someone from the outside, from an organization, come in is very positive and very refreshing for the kids.” 

For more information visit www.everybodywinsdc.org or contact Catherine Gartland at 202-216-9467 ext. 204.

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