In Their Words

I’m just a kid from Springfield, Massachusetts.

Cliché? Maybe, but it’s still 100% true. I’ve lived on College Street, Kensington Ave, and Boyer Street. No matter where I’ve lived in Springfield, I’ve always had grand plans to change the world. Who knew that I’d get the chance to do it someday?

I count myself lucky to have such a wonderful family, who instilled several critical values in me since I was young. These values have been reinforced throughout my life by my wife, great mentors, teachers, and role models. Growing up, my mother worked multiple jobs to support my older sister, younger brother, and I, so hard work is an assumed value. Another instilled value is the sense of responsibility to others; an obligation “to leave people, places, and things better than you find them.” Above all else, my family always stressed the value of education. Our conversations weren’t centered around if I’d go to college, but rather where I’d be going to college.

Since graduating from UMass Dartmouth, I’ve worked in the field of education. The value of education has not diminished to me. I’ve maintained careers related to education primarily in Connecticut, but my newest adventure has called me back home to Springfield: I am the Program Manager for The Literacy Lab.

Tom and the Literacy Lab tutor team in Springfield, MA.

The Literacy Lab is a Washington D.C. based non-profit that serves over 5,000 students in six states. We partner with school communities to drive student achievement and close the literacy gap. We do this by providing rigorously trained, full-time tutors to build capacity where it’s needed the most and support young learners on their path to reading fluency. Our tutors deliver evidence-based literacy intervention daily to students in pre-K through third grade.

With the support of CFWM and other foundations, The Literacy Lab launched in Western Massachusetts with 25 full-time tutors who work in 13 sites in Springfield and Holyoke.

There is so much untapped potential in our schools. Our students’ ability to communicate their own needs is often a barrier. As adults, it is our responsibility to provide the support, the instruction, the resources, and the guidance to ensure our children have ample opportunities to succeed. The Literacy Lab strives to increase capacity for our school and early education partners. Our hope and our goal is that by providing these resources, more students will be successful and read proficiently by fourth grade.

Before third grade students are learning how to read, but from fourth grade on, students are reading to learn. Students who do not reach reading proficiency by this critical milestone are set up for a lifetime of potential roadblocks and negative consequences. Students who are not on track by fourth grade are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to graduate from a four-year university, and more likely to be incarcerated. Do you see where this is going?

The Literacy Lab team helps community on Build Day 2018.

Here’s the crazy part—this problem is solvable! We know that students need evidence-based early literacy intervention. We know that the best time to make an investment in our students is when they are in the early years of their education. We know how to effectively teach students how to read. We know that students who receive tutoring in kindergarten are more likely to achieve grade-level growth and stay on track. We know that all it takes is a well-trained, caring adult. This is the work we do every day at The Literacy Lab.

I have the absolute pleasure of working with passionate and dedicated individuals. From our tutors, to our master literacy coaches, school principals, all the way up to district partners, here in Western Massachusetts, our community has taken this issue very seriously. We couldn’t be happier to partner with these leaders in this critical work!

So, what exactly do we do at The Literacy Lab every day? The answer depends on the day! Broadly, we secure resources and support the systems that enable us to provide students with what they need. We fundraise, recruit, collaborate with partners and directly support our tutors.  Supporting our tutors is the best part of the job, because our tutors are the heart and soul of the whole operation. Their life-changing work and their impact is invaluable. At a training this year one of tutors, Tanita Council shared this motivating thought “I’ve been working every single day with a student teaching them how to write their name. They have learned how to write their name, they’ll be writing their name for the rest of their life, and I’m proud because I taught them how to do that.”

Not bad for a kid from Springfield, right? But I’m a kid who sees himself in every kid we serve, because not long ago I was that kid.

My son is in the Springfield Public School system along with my nephews, nieces, and little cousins. I’ve sat in the classrooms at the schools we now serve. I’ve had friends who didn’t have the same support I did, and I know what happens in high school when students don’t enter with basic skills. Though I’ve seen the downsides with my own eyes, I know our students can be the learners they’re meant to be! Our school leaders are as passionate about making literacy gaps a thing of the past as we are at The Literacy Lab.

I’m just glad I can do my part to leave Western Massachusetts better than I found it.

About the author: Thomas Oakley is Program Manager for The Literacy Lab in Springfield, MA. Born and raised in Springfield, Tom was a recipient of a Community Foundation of Western Mass scholarship in 2006, and will serve as a CFWM Scholarship Reviewer in 2019. Thomas is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth where he earned his B.A. in Economics. He has over 10 years of educational and non-profit experience. Photos courtesy of the author.

The Literacy Lab’s work is supported in part by The Funder Collaborative for Reading Success, via the CFWM fund Reading Success by 4th Grade.