Literacy Lab fills reading gap

Literacy is a luxury. To many Americans, being able to read and write is a given, but for many children all over the country, this is not a reality. Literacy is the basis for a good education, but if that foundation is missing, it can cause an achievement gap that will follow them for the rest of their lives — this is where the Literacy Lab comes in.

In 2009, Ashley Johnson saw an achievement gap while working as a special education teacher in Washington, D.C. Her students’ literacy skills were well below grade level and they lacked the help they needed to make progress. This is where William & Mary alumnus Tom Dillon ’02 comes in. Dillon and Johnson came together to create the Literacy Lab, an organization with a mission to provide children from low-income families with individualized reading instruction to improve their literacy skills, leading to greater success in school and increased opportunities in life. 

For Dillon, his interest in helping create the Literacy Lab stems from his time at William & Mary.

“My experience at William & Mary reinforced my belief in the importance of a strong public education system, which motivated my desire to create an organization to bolster this system for children from low-income families,” Dillon said. “At William & Mary, I saw the promise of what public education could be, but also knew that there was work to be done to make that possible for all children.”

The Literacy Lab works with children ages 3 through third grade and serves around 4,500 students a year. Literacy Lab works with schools and districts with high numbers of children struggling to read proficiently. The organization embeds rigorously trained, full-time early literacy tutors in elementary schools serving high-needs populations to help close the literacy gap before it becomes too large to overcome.

“The basic premise of our model is to provide each individual child with evidence-based and data-driven early literacy intervention to ensure that they are reading at grade level,” Dillon said. “In short: making sure that each child gets what they need, when they need it.”

Dillon and Johnson are seeing their hard work manifest through the students who have been tutored. Eighty-eight percent of their school partners report that the Literacy Lab had a positive impact not only on the students they served directly, but on school-wide literacy levels as well. Participating students receive an average of 90 one-on-one sessions during the school year.

This year, the Literacy Lab expanded its range of services by launching the Leading Men Fellowship.  

“We are investing heavily in a new program we launched designed to engage young men of color in early childhood education,” Dillon said. “The goal of this work is three-fold: to diversify the early childhood teacher workforce, to prepare children for kindergarten, and to provide young men of color who have graduated from high school with a rigorous, residency-style experience to spark their interest in a career in education.”

The Literacy Lab has offices in D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, Virginia and Kansas City, Missouri, and will be opening an office in Massachusetts this summer. Given the time and resources, Dillon and Johnson hope to expand Literacy Lab to reach children across the country and combat literacy problems nationwide.