Reprinted with permission
Memphis Business Quarterly
by Anna Cox
For many, knowing how to communicate is something you don’t ever remember learning. As far back as you can recall, you’ve known how to speak, write, and read. But with 14 percent of Shelby County adults at the most basic literacy level, and 22 percent who function only marginally higher, most of the adults who walk through the door at Literacy Mid-South read on a 4th-grade level. At that rate, many struggle to complete job applications successfully.
Luckily, Literacy Mid-South’s executive director Kevin Dean isn’t afraid of a challenge.
“We’ve been in turnaround mode [from a significant financial crisis] since 2011 when I got here, and normally it takes about three years to get out of that,” Dean says. “We did it in about two years, and we were able to evaluate the needs of the community. It was generally accepted that we couldn’t go back to where we were — we had to adapt or die.”
From there, LMS created a comprehensive business plan that not only included an expanded mission, but also hit on needs assessments, strategies, and how to accomplish things in an altogether new way.
With his new goal of creating a community of lifelong learners, Dean knew LMS had to get creative. “To sum it up, this has been our year to really think outside the box. Nonprofits always have to worry about money and when that next revenue stream is going to end. We’re now in a place where we’re stable and can figure out how to top ourselves. We have a culture now where we take risks; we aren’t afraid to fail. Some of those risks have been utter failures, but they’ve allowed us to change and grow and move forward.”
What started as the first ever city-wide reading campaign has grown into the city’s only four-day book festival. One particularly noteworthy way LMS is adapting is through its implementation of mobile apps as a modern solution to one of their problems. “We decentralized our adult learning program two years ago and, in doing so, those 250 volunteers and 800 students who were in our building are now dispersed into 31 different libraries,” says Dean. “So there was the challenge of how to get in touch with them and get them the resources they need. In trying to remedy this, we were killing trees, brain cells, and everything, and it was taking us backward by giving them another big manual they wouldn’t read.”
Dean started looking around for an app and was surprised when he came up empty-handed. “I thought, surely someone in the adult basic education system has done this since we’re one of hundreds in the United States, but they hadn’t. I was surprised; there are national organizations that should be doing this but they aren’t. So we just did it. The minute we launched it, people started asking how they could do it, too.”
Dean’s approach to progressive learning garnered national attention and snagged LMS a write up in The NonProfit Times.
So what does this app do, exactly? The adult learning app allows tutors to send reports every time they meet, and allows easy access to all of their curriculum, Pinterest and YouTube content created by the LMS staff.
“It’s made our program modern, and it’s given our tutors the opportunity to feel empowered and really become student-focused,” says Dean. “It gives our students a buy-in for their own learning, since they’re setting the tone. There’s a lot more feedback and interaction and it creates deeper relationships that are needed for success, while also linking LMS back through communication tools.”
Dean previously co-authored a service-learning curriculum that has been used across the country, and he wanted to make sure the curriculum/framework for the Memphis app was also cutting edge by designing it himself.
“There’s not one model that works for everyone, so we needed to create a template that could be tailored for each student,” says Dean. “We came up with a benchmarking system, for example, one is ‘recognize that letters make words.’ Tutors can do various activities, use the supplemental materials, whatever, to get the student to that checkpoint. We’re actually in the process of coming up with lesson plans with links embedded into the app for each of these benchmarks, too, so you don’t have to find your own resources. The lesson plans will be implemented by Christmas. This way, it’s fun and interactive.”
But you don’t have to take Dean’s word for it. In 2013, he was honored with the Ruth J. Colvin and Frank C. Laubach Award for excellence in community based adult literacy from ProLiteracy, a national literacy organization, for his financial turnaround and the launch of his framework curriculum.
“I don’t think national organizations know what to do with us,” Dean jokes. “[But] there’s no going back. People will start reading more on mobile devices, but that’s not really what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the quantifying of learning on iPads. Things like word bingo and playing games to learn how to read have been shown to be very effective in blended learning situations.” That’s why LMS donated $27,000 worth of iPads this year to other nonprofits to create blended learning labs for after school programs, with a bigger donation planned for 2015.
“Organizationally, we’re trying to be in a place where we are the go-to for learning and literacy info, not just locally, but nationally,” says Dean. “We’re really setting ourselves up for that by providing resources for other organizations. I would like for us to be the model for other people. The nonprofit world is always 10 years behind the for-profit world; we’re always playing catch-up. If we can set that bar a little higher and pave the way for other non-profits, I think we’ll save everyone a lot of headaches.” •