Literacy Initiative

The Literacy Initiative provides STEM interactive opportunities, after school programs, and individualized tutoring for low-income students.

Photo of Agha Haider
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Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

We are reinventing the typical after-school care program to cultivate STEM-based learning after school hours. After working hands-on with elementary schools across the midwest, we have noticed the short-comings of STEM activities across the board. Specifically, after recent school closures due to the coronavirus outbreaks, young students have been left with even fewer STEM opportunities that can build-upon their current curriculum.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

We have already begun tackling this problem both this past Fall and this upcoming Spring through our Books and Cookies program and our eTutoring alternative. Books and Cookies is a volunteer-based program that uses a variety of reading and interactive activities to support a common STEM theme for the season. For example, our Fall season theme was focused on discussing and approaching environment issues with elementary school students. Specifically, we organized an Environmental Innovation Challenge to hear childrens’ solutions in their own words and begin to implement them in schools. We plan to continue this program for years to come and expand on the observations we made. Additionally, when faced with unexpected hurdles that led to closures of most of the schools we worked with, we made our approach fully digital. Our adaptations included a one-on-one online tutoring base for students who could fall behind in school, especially STEM subjects. Along with our eTutoring, we wanted to fully simulate the experience of an after school program by creating an eClub that focused on specific STEM, reading, and everyday subjects. Sessions are currently hosted via YouTube Live.

3. Using STEM as a force of good: Please specify how are you using STEM to solve for an environmental challenge you are passionate about.

Over the summer, the Literacy Initiative team visited EarthDance Organic Farms and HealthWorks! Kids Museum which provides hands-on learning opportunities for students. After visiting and sharing our story with the director of EarthDance and HealthWorks!, we thought that it’d be beneficial to bring back what we learned. That's when we came up with our Environmental Innovation Challenge, only a small portion of our overarching Books & Cookies after-school program. After a couple of ideation sessions with volunteers, students presented their environmental solutions to peers and teachers. Our goal after hearing their approaches was to implement their ideas in schools and educate the greater St. Louis community. A few examples of what students came up with include composting food, reducing plastic waste (plastic straws, bags), and picking up trash/litter. Through the lens of sustainability, these approaches are necessary in order to ensure that the next generation of students are aware of these issues and observe how to take action. We also work to combat food insecurity by rescuing left-over food from local restaurants and providing them to the students within our programs.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

This part was written co-leader, Addie White: As someone who began their experience with Books and Cookies as a volunteer them self, I have seen first-hand the beneficial experiences that our program not only provides to the students, but to their volunteers as well. I joined Books and Cookies after being frustrated by News stories and media coverage that spoke poorly of inner-city St.Louis, specifically it’s public education. As someone who grew up in inner-city St.Louis, I saw first-hand the concern my parents had as I approached kindergarten and they weren’t confident in the public school district we lived in. Their concerns ended up being the reason that we moved to the suburbs and to a different school district. In joining Books and Cookies, I wanted to relieve other families from being put in the same situation, knowing that any parent wants nothing but the best for their children.

5. Video (Keep it simple, a video made on a hand-held phone is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

There have been many key components that have gone into implementing our programs. First, we began fundraising by soliciting donations and hosting fundraisers at local businesses. Secondly, we began meeting with principals and librarians during the school year to see what their current needs were. After these meetings, we began developing a curriculum that would focus on key topics that we wanted to address including health, the environment, and the importance of service.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Our solution is fully run by high-school students, and gives them leadership opportunities and the ability to take initiative within their communities. Also, our programs expand outside of the St. Louis area and into other disadvantaged communities; our eTutoring program reaches students from coast to coast. We work to teach real-world issues from environmental awareness to health awareness, which sets us apart from your average after-school program. Along with our educational benefits, we work to combat food insecurity by providing each student with an nutritious after-school meal.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made?

In the last 3 months, we’ve shifted from supporting around 300 students on a weekly basis through our Books & Cookies program, to providing our eTutoring/eClub program to hundreds of students from various backgrounds due to the recent events regarding COVID-19. We’ve gotten almost 350 high school and college students to dedicate their time towards tutoring lower-income students. Additionally, we’ve donated around 6,000 books and 3,600 snacks to students in the past three months. From the beginning, we've donated over 30,000 books and mentored over 15,000 students. One of the most important statistics is with one of our partner schools, Airport Elementary. When we began working with them over 3 years ago, they were last (17th) in their entire district for reading proficiency, but after we worked with them, they finished in the 10th spot last May. This shows the true impact of our program.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

In the future, we are planning to expand our programs into more schools across the United States by finding leaders in each community. We are looking to acquire grants that will allow us to expand our STEM-based curriculum, and grow from being an after-school program to a year round program involving weekend workshops and summer camps. This way, we are able to reach a broader range of students and make a much larger impact. In the upcoming year, we’re planning to work with STEM-based organizations including EarthDance Organic Farms and HealthWorks! Kids Museum to provide hands-on learning experience relating to science and sustainability. We are also bringing on a potential partnership with The Thirst Project which will allow us to expand.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

Through community outreach, we’ve been able to inspire like-minded teens across the United States to get involved in our project. Social media has been a useful platform to engage other students in our mission, because it is easy to change and update, while still appealing to our target audience (high school and college students). We have also contacted principals, deans, and college advisors of both local schools and schools across the country to spread the word within their school communities.

11. Please share ideas of how you can partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

We’re looking to partner up with a local high-school led initiative, Changemakers Collaborative to engage liked-minded students to get involved in our program. Also, we have reached out to Boys and Girls Clubs across the United States to participate in our eTutoring programs. So far, we’ve been able to engage around ten different clubs in our services in locations both on the East and West coasts. Recently, we've been in talks with The Thirst Project regarding a collaboration as well.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

Our program has initiated tangible evidence of increasing the standardized test scores of schools that were struggling to meet every student’s needs. Principals have reached out to us expressing the concern that their students are not receiving enough contact with teachers, which is where our program comes into play. One-on-one student conferencing allows for increased comprehension of material, and personal relationships that makes the student feel secure in their learning environment.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations less than $100
  • Donations between $100-$1k
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Participated in previous Ashoka challenges

Evaluation results

7 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

Yes, absolutely! - 14.3%

Probably - 28.6%

Maybe - 57.1%

Probably not - 0%

No - 0%

2. CONNECTION to Environmental Sustainability

5 - Absolutely! It is totally clear that the solution is contributing directly to environmental sustainability and/or addressing climate change - 14.3%

4 — Yes, it establishes a connection to environment/ climate change but could be stronger - 0%

3 — Somewhat, the entry speaks to this environmental sustainability, but the direct impact is not well established - 42.9%

2 — Not really, the connection to environment/ climate is very weak - 28.6%

1 — No. The entry does not have a reference the solution’s impact on environment and/or climate change - 14.3%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%

3. Is this entry CREATIVE?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 14.3%

4 - Yes, I think so - 42.9%

3 - Maybe - 28.6%

2 - Probably not. - 14.3%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

4. Does this entry demonstrate a COMMITMENT to changemaking?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 25%

4 - Yes, I think so - 50%

3 - Maybe - 100%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Does this entry value CHANGEMAKING through collaboration with other stakeholders in its approach?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 28.6%

4 - Yes, I think so - 42.9%

3 - Maybe - 28.6%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

6. Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 16.7%

4- Yes, I think so - 50%

3- Maybe - 33.3%

2- Probably not - 0%

1- No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

7. FEEDBACK: What are the strengths of this project?

CONNECTION: You have a great understanding and personal connection to the problem - 100%

CREATIVITY: You have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions to aid environmental sustainability/combat climate change - 50%

COMMITMENT: You have a thoughtful plan for growing your business, and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 75%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: You value thinking around how to activate other changemakers and empower them to care about your cause. You also have a clearly defined plan on how to collaborate across multiple stakeholders - 50%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 50%

VIABLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 50%

Other option - 0%

8. FEEDBACK: What are some areas for improvement for this project?

CONNECTION: Why you care about the environment/ climate was unclear – It would be great to elaborate on what this solution means to you, personally and how it affects you and/or your community. - 100%

CREATIVITY: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 100%

COMMITMENT: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 50%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: Try to provide more insights into how you are activating changemakers and empowering them to innovate through your product or programming. How will they care about environment/climate if they currently do not? Think about how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 100%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 100%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 50%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 0%

Other option - 0%

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Chase Hartman

If you need any books we should team up! I've collected thousands and try to also raise funds to purchase new STEM books for kids in school.