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Stacy Ratner: founder of the Chicago literacy venture Open Books

Open Books is a nonprofit social venture that operates a bookstore, provides community programs and mobilizes volunteers to promote literacy in Chicago and beyond. Founder Stacy Ratner has degrees in law and literature and experience in taking three startup companies from idea through to a combined total of $30 million in committed venture funding. Since starting Open Books in her basement in 2006, she has received an Emerging Leader Fellowship from the Chicago Community Trust, a place on NewCity’s Lit 50 List, the Social Enterprise Alliance’s Innovation award and recognition on the White House’s official blog for “spreading the infinite and awesome power of books.” But she is most proud of the incredible things that the Open Books team, students, volunteers and supporters of Open Books make happen every day. Stacy also writes a novel each year, lives and letterboxes with her beloved beagle and is always starting something. Follow her at: @stacyjratner

Q: When and why did you launch Open Books Buddies?
A: Open Books was launched with a mission: to decrease illiteracy rates in Chicago, a city in which fifty-three percent of adults have low or limited literacy skills, and where high instances of poverty, homelessness and violence can obscure a student’s ability to learn and achieve. Open Books knew that many students weren’t getting the attention in school they needed (where overcrowded classrooms and lack of resources allow teachers, on average, only five minutes per day to work individually with students) and that children across the city could benefit from supplemental reading practice. Thus, Open Books Buddies, a reading-mentoring program that pairs high-need students with a consistent, enthusiastic, knowledgeable volunteer literacy coach, was born.
Buddies first began in the spring of 2008 at Schiller Elementary, a public school that, at the time, was considered one of the lowest performing in Chicago. Open Books, then a brand-new organization, decided to rally a group of enthusiastic volunteers to read with the students at Schiller, and the program was so successful that it continued to grow. It has now served more than 1,200 high-need students in various communities throughout the city.

Q: How successful has it been?
A: The response from schools to the Buddies program has been inspiring. Since its inception, the program has provided tens of thousands of hours of invaluable extra reading practice for the students who need it most, helping them become more fluent, engaged readers, learners and thinkers. During the 2011-2012 school year, thirty percent more students were reading on grade level by the spring than had been in the fall, due in part to their work with their Big Buddies twice each week.
One of the primary aims of the Buddies program, apart from building skills, is to increase students’ confidence as readers. Twice each year, Open Books surveys students and coaches to track their changes in progress and attitudes about reading, and every year, nearly 100 percent of participating students report positive associations with the Buddies program and that working with their volunteer “Big Buddies” has helped them become better readers.

Q: What practices make it particularly effective?
A: One of the key pieces of the Buddies program is a consistent, reliable volunteer base. Open Books asks volunteers to commit to a semester of volunteering, and in most instances volunteers stay on for a full year, working with the same two students twice each week. This ensures consistency for our students and helps Big Buddies and Little Buddies foster a solid relationship, critical for high need students, many of whom may not have supportive, engaged adults in their lives.
The volunteers who become Big Buddies must go through a background check and attend two separate trainings with Open Books staff before they can begin working in schools. Open Books also assesses participating students and provides them with access to a program-specific leveled library to ensure they are reading books at their skill level during their sessions with their Big Buddies.
Lastly, Open Books carefully considers school partners before bringing Buddies to a new campus. The Buddies program is most successful at schools in which there is open communication about students’ progress, and where all stakeholders – from volunteers to teachers to school staff – are committed to the success of the program.

Q: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as you’ve tweaked it for maximum effectiveness?
A: Open Books Buddies is constantly evolving to better serve students and schools. The program has shifted from a very simple concept – providing volunteers to read with students – to having far more structure and moving pieces. One of the biggest changes was increasing dosage per student. When the program began, volunteers would meet with their students once per week, which just wasn’t enough attention for the participating students. In the fall of 2011, Open Books decided to increase the dosage, shifting the program to twice per week at each school, which doubled the amount of reading time each student received.
Open Books has also incorporated leveled libraries of grade-appropriate books, assessments to place students and track growth and a number of supplemental resources and materials. The Buddies volunteers have gotten progressively more skilled, as well, due to both a more solid vetting process and an extensive training process that includes program logistics training, specific literacy skills trainings and on-site orientations with school staff to learn more about their students.

Q: Please tell us an inspiring story or two.
A: The Literacy Team at Open Books has been fortunate to witness many amazing, uplifting and downright adorable moments throughout the history of the Buddies program. Whether it’s third-grader Kyle shouting “I’m getting better!” after conquering a hard word, seeing volunteer Roger and his student, Jacob, poring over the difficult-to-pronounce names of dinosaurs until they’ve committed them to memory, overhearing first-grader Cameron tell his Big Buddy, “Reading is so much better than watching TV!”, we’ve witnessed firsthand the power of influence that books have over students, when students are given the appropriate amount of support to read them.

Q: Why do you feel this kind of program works so well for getting kids to read?
A: With average class sizes in schools increasing at the rate they are, it is often very rare for a student to get more than even five minutes of one-on-one time with an adult. In Buddies, however, we are able to provide an hour of one-on-one reading for each student, every week.
Also, reading and engaging in discussions with an adult is one of the best ways to build fluency and increase vocabulary, and students are able to begin to challenge themselves to read books with the support of an adult that they might not be able to read independently.
But one of the best things Buddies provides for students is a caring, fun and supportive environment for students to engage in reading and begin to find enjoyment in it. The vast majority of Open Books Buddies students are struggling readers, which means that reading is something difficult, normally only done as a chore. Open Books Buddies strives to expose students to the joy of reading, and the program provides multiple opportunities to set students up for success. In fact, it is not uncommon for some of our most struggling readers to express their love for the program and their newfound enjoyment of books after a few months with their Big Buddy.

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