The Detroit Literacy Project



Nearly half of Detroit’s adult population is functionally illiterate, which makes job search and economic mobility nearly impossible. Chief Program Officer Rose Wong and her project committee members Vaibhavi Shah, Maddie Tobolewski, and Kevin Stephen are striving to change that with the Detroit Literacy Project.

The problem

So many of us take our ability to read and communicate for granted. We’re able to fill out job applications, read the news and flip through Facebook all because we can read. There are arguably few things more valuable and beautiful to a child than growing up in a house filled with plenty of books to explore, peruse and investigate.

The Detroit Public School system is incredibly weak. After visiting a third grade classroom at Bennett Elementary last spring, Rose and her colleagues recognized that 30 of the 33 students in the class were below a third grade reading level. 13 of those students, in fact, were at a first grade reading level.

For a district with 47,000 students, there are currently 425 teacher vacancies in Detroit. This is nothing new -- the district has long since struggled with teacher retention. Teachers have very little autonomy even within their own classrooms and there exists a lack of stability within the system overall (teachers are given little notice as to whether they’ll be teaching the same class from one year to the next, and are often shuffled across schools in the district from year to year). On top of that, Detroit has the lowest average teacher salaries of most other large districts in Michigan.

Policymakers certainly aren’t making the situation any better. Governor Rick Snyder was recently sued by seven Detroit schoolchildren for denying them the right to literacy, which their attorneys argued is a fundamental U.S. right. You can read details of the lawsuit here -- but in short, it describes classrooms without books, teachers or any sort of infrastructure which might encourage learning. In federal court last Thursday, Gov. Snyder’s attorneys argued that the state of Michigan is under no obligation to ensure literacy among students within the Detroit Public School system.

It’s no wonder kids aren’t progressing as much as they should be.

The project

Last spring, a generous donor invested in the prosperity of Detroit gave Starts with Soap a grant of $5,000 to be used on a project in the city. Rose began working with Co-Founder and Executive Director Eamon Bracht to put together what they deemed at the time a “simple reading program.” Between April and August of 2016, the pair spent hours a day gathering quality book titles and doing research on best classroom practices for their proposed program. They decided to use the money to purchase books and to create detailed activities for 60 to 90 minutes of reading and writing every day. The plan was to implement the program come Fall 2016.

Though the books had been purchased and the program had been developed, it became clear that there were bigger logistical problems at stake: getting the partnership between SWS and Bennett Elementary contractually approved.

Books donated from SWS scattered across students' desks in Ms. Diane Cross' third grade classroom at Bennett Elementary in Detroit, one of the two classrooms in which the Spring 2016 pilot program was implemented.

Books donated from SWS scattered across students' desks in Ms. Diane Cross' third grade classroom at Bennett Elementary in Detroit, one of the two classrooms in which the Spring 2016 pilot program was implemented.

As it turns out, Detroit’s school district is riddled with red tape, bureaucracy and inefficiency. The school’s principal, Ms. Dina Bonomo, was initially very supportive of the reading program, but it took months of inefficient back-and-forth phone calls with several different school administrators to get the partnership officially approved. It was impossible to get in touch with teachers themselves due to restrictions set by the teachers’ union, which prevents them from communicating with outside organizations during the summer and outside of specific time periods during the school day without risk of lawsuit. By the time the partnership between SWS and Bennett Elementary was made official, there were only 4 months remaining in the 2016-17 school year.

Rose and Eamon ended up going back to the drawing board and trimming their year-length program to a 2 month-long pilot in Spring of 2017. In doing so, they also sought consultation from educational experts Betsy A. VanDeusen, Ph.D Department Chairperson in Teacher Education and Professional Development at Central Michigan University, the Detroit Country Day Junior School Faculty, and Cheryl Fuller, Educational Consultant and Duke University Teaching Fellow.

Though the situation was not ideal, the goal was to use the pilot as a trial run to iron out kinks in the program before launching the official full-length, year-long program during the following school year. It became clear that the reading program in place within the school district at the time was disengaging and failed to meet the needs of the students. The teachers were desperate for something new. For that 2-month period last spring, our reading program was the only reading program in place for third graders at Bennett Elementary in the two classrooms in which it was implemented.

Throughout the pilot, SWS maintained constant communication with the teachers via mandated teacher logs and email. The program, while it provided structure via weekly vocabulary assessments and targeted reading activities, emphasized a high degree of teacher autonomy. Teachers were encouraged to provide feedback and in turn we were able to form a partnership as the program was tweaked, revised and tightened all with advice from teachers who had implemented it firsthand in their classrooms.

The Detroit Literacy Project as it stands today features the original structured reading program with its individualized and group learning, one-on-one reading and vocabulary tests and interactive activities. Teachers continue to retain autonomy over their classrooms and are able to encourage creativity and critical thinking amongst students with limited access to resources. The updated program emphasizes a balance between differentiation and cross-level collaboration, and also pairs technology use with handwritten work in its holistic approach toward education. Much of its approach is inspired by Montessori practice, which emphasizes individual student attention and the need for room to grow independently as well as collaboratively. Come Fall 2017, the program will officially launch in its full year-length format.

Other than the obvious goal of getting kids to reach reading levels which correspond to their year in school, the greater purpose of the Detroit Literacy Project is to ultimately nurture a lifelong love of reading amongst the kids we impact. The ability to communicate is a lifelong skill which opens up an infinite number of doors in terms of job opportunities, social and economic mobility, and the ability to form human connections.

The future

One day we’d love the program to expand beyond Bennett Elementary School, and even beyond the Detroit Public Schools. There is an extraordinary number of urban school districts that need the sort of intersectional approach to education which we aspire to provide.


If you or someone you know would like to be a sponsor in the campaign for literacy across cities like Detroit, please click here.

If you’d like to connect with Project Lead and Chief Program Officer Rose Wong, please email her at


Contact Claire Wang at