While athletes from around the world compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics, preparations for a much different Olympics are taking place in Philadelphia. Philadelphia READS, an independent nonprofit serving thousands of urban children, organizes an annual Reading Olympics that encourages kids to strengthen their literacy skills. Instead of the high jump or the 200-meter freestyle, kids read a list of assigned books and compete to answer Jeopardy-style questions that test their reading comprehension and analysis.
The Reading Olympics is a creative attempt to solve a longstanding and intractable problem: getting kids reading at grade level by the time they enter fourth grade. According to Tara McCoy, executive director of Philadelphia READS, over 50 percent of Philadelphia’s students are behind. At-risk groups include children in low-income, single-parent, and working-parent homes. In fact, 99 percent of the children served by Philadelphia READS are economically disadvantaged, and 78 percent are nonwhite.
McCoy holds that: “If we wanted to fix the problem of quality education in this city, it would be fixed,” but points out that the Philadelphia school system is not accountable to the City administration.
As it stands, small nonprofits like Philadelphia READS attempt to bridge the childhood literacy achievement gap. At times, it feels like they are working in isolation to fix a systemic problem that’s far bigger than any single organization. McCoy said, “Ultimately, the goal for nonprofits should be to eliminate the need for our existence. But right now there’s the need for extra support for grade-level reading.”
Besides the Olympics, Philadelphia READS offers a summer reading program, a book bank, and a Power Partners program, which pairs local classrooms with reading buddies from Philadelphia’s business community. In 2015 they joined the Read by 4th campaign, a network of community organizations that have vowed to promote citywide grade-level reading. Many groups care about helping Philadelphia kids become better readers, but McCoy noted that Philadelphia READS was one of only a few participating organizations with existing literacy and education programming in place. She said, “If we continue to help a few thousand kids here and there, that’s not going to fix our city.”
On the other hand, staging the annual Reading Olympics is more than a symbolic gesture. With 2,000 students from 50 Philadelphia schools participating, over 30,000 extracurricular books are read each year in preparation for the event. McCoy said that young Olympians not only have a blast “training” but feel a sense of pride in representing their schools.
Right now, a committee is working to put together the 2016–17 reading list, which will feature books that represent kids from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities. Tara McCoy said, “These books are not in the school’s curriculum for the year. Our goal is to make selections that are edgy, new, and culturally relevant.”
Once school starts, readers will begin preparing under the tutelage of a coach, typically a teacher who guides team meetings after school and during lunch. In the spring, teams will gather at a local university to compete in three fast-paced rounds of questions that test their knowledge of that year’s books. Ribbons are awarded to teams with the most points, and every team goes home with a set of new books. But, most importantly, participants will have chosen to make reading part of their lives—hopefully, for the long run.
The Olympics is “just us getting kids to fall in love with reading,” McCoy said. “They’re all winners.”