The Bronx will change a girl. When Lauren Poinier began teaching Special Education in this NYC borough, she couldn’t predict that this was the first step toward founding a non-profit.
Word Rebel closes the achievement gap before it starts by connecting the parents of pre-k students with literacy resources, so they can rebel against education inequality one word at a time. Learn more about how Word Rebel takes on this issue in this interview with Lauren:
Can you tell us what your rebellious organization is doing in the world?
LP: Every parent wants their child to reach their potential, but not all parents feel they have the resources. We act as a bridge between free literacy resources and the populations most impacted by the income and achievement gap.
Before we go further, can you give us an achievement gap 101 lesson?
LP: The achievement gap is the reason that 50% of low income students don’t graduate on time, or at all. Education inequality between low and high income students starts before the first day of school. Unlike low income working parents, high income parents have the privilege of prioritizing literacy. They have access to childcare or a stay-at-home-parent engaging in conversation. The high school students I taught were four or more years behind these high and middle income students, because they started pre-school knowing less words, and every year that gap grows exponentially. Word Rebel aims to correct the word deficit before it begins. We bring literacy resources and reading comprehension skills to families of 0-4 year olds.
Many teachers are aware of the achievement gap, but not many move from the stability of teaching to the instability of starting an organization. Was there a significant moment that inspired your transition?
LP: I was teaching middle and high school special education.
My students were reading 4-6 years below grade level, but in my opinion, only 1 in 10 of them actually had a learning disability. The rest just had a vocabulary deficit.
I began researching the most effective vocabulary interventions, but research showed that high school, middle school, and even elementary school is too late to intervene because the achievement gap begins before preschool. I found a study called the 30 Million Word Gap: a child needs to hear 30 million words before they learn the 1,100 words that put them on track for graduation. Low income students start preschool with a 600 word deficit. By 10th grade, it’s a 15,000. Do the math on how many words that is to teach in one day. No teacher can teach that much vocabulary when they have high school content to teach. I was teaching 21-year-old seniors who had experienced 18 years of falling behind their high income peers - and there would only be more students like that. I could keep teaching, or I could reach students before they got misclassified with learning disabilities.
What first steps did you take?
LP: I wasn’t planning on starting my own organization at all. I began searching for organizations in NYC who already addressed pre-school readiness. I expected to find tons who worked with preschoolers, new parents, or kids under four years old. I didn’t find a single one.
I felt like we were doing a disservice to an entire generation.
I started an awareness campaign and built a simple website with the best literacy resources in one place. But I quickly realized that there is no simple way to connect with non school-age kids. So I decided to switch to a partnership model, partnering with child-care centers who provided free care to kids living below the poverty line. It was perfect.
How many people work with you to reach your vision?
LP: Word Rebel is 100% volunteer-owned and operated. Along with 30 partner daycares and 2,500 students, it’s just me and my board of directors. Anyone can volunteer to throw a fundraiser, or sign up as a partner, but they are volunteers just like us.
What did you do to create a common ground with your day care partners?
LP: I spent two years walking door to door through Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. I wouldn’t even cold call. I would just show up and convince them to listen to me for fifteen minutes. I definitely felt the tension of, “Who are you and what are you trying to sell me?” But once they learned my background and that I was connecting them to the literacy materials they already wanted, they were glad to accept a partnership.
To address the elephant in the room, you are a White, 20-something going into project buildings. Were you welcomed with open arms?
LP: That was one of my biggest concerns.
I didn’t want to start an organization led by white women who thought they could teach mothers how to interact with their own children.
The daycare leaders are my point of contact; they are part of these communities. They have spent years building trust with parents. There are free literacy resources everywhere, but no organization helping them access it. Word Rebel connects daycares to the resources, and they take it from there.
Running an organization on your own seems intimidating. What would you tell someone who wants to start something, but feels they don’t have the support to take action?
LP: You don’t need anyone else to begin! I did everything on my own at first. I had no idea how to start an organization, make a website, or write a grant. Even if it’s not your background or your strength, you can teach yourself anything by reading a book or website. Coincidentally, that is what drives the mission of Word Rebel.
What can we do to support your mission?
LP: Spreading awareness with social media or fundraising makes a huge difference. Three dollars represents an entire year of evidence-based literacy intervention for one child. If you love throwing events, you could even make your one a “party for a purpose”. You can also check out our website for other ideas to get involved, or subscribe to our newsletter Every week I send out a weekly update with one uncommon vocabulary word so can increase your vocabulary every week.
I love that! Can you send us off with a favorite vocabulary word of yours?
LP: Apricity. It means “the warmth of the sun on your face on a cold winter day”. It is so perfectly symbolic.