RIF Pittsburgh uses a variety of programs to help battle literacy rates in poverty stricken areas

By: Neil Strebig

Alison McGee recalls a story from one of RIF Pittsburgh’s “Everybody Wins” events, where she met a self-assured third grader at King Elementary. The student was in her words “too cool for school.” He didn’t want to read at the beginning of the event, putting his nose up at the various book suggestions thrown his way. But after his mentor introduced him to the “Fly Guy” book series he had a change of heart. Before the end of the session, the child had completed 6 books in the youth series.

“It is really heartwarming to see these interactions,” said McGee, “The little successes we see on a week-to-week basis are what it is all worth.”

McGee is the director of operations for Reading is FUNdamental (RIF) Pittsburgh. McGee  studied at Leeds University in England and was originally focused on creating a career in international relations and sustainability, but found the field to be “convoluted.” Instead, she decided to return home to her native Pittsburgh to find work for a nonprofit she believed in. She landed at RIF Pittsburgh in 2014 and has been working to help improve literacy rates throughout the City of Pittsburgh in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“We specifically target those low-income areas,” McGee said.

Currently, RIF Pittsburgh is focused on seven neighborhoods throughout the City of Pittsburgh: East Liberty, Hazelwood, Homewood, Southside, Wilkinsburg and the Northside.

According to Pittsburgh Public Schools five of the Northside schools grades K-8 are well above the 65 percent target, most notably King Elementary where 91 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. This means that students are “direct certified” and qualify for various services like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Due to financial hardships many of these students battle with literacy because they are in a literature desert; they simply do not have books to read at their disposal. Even more alarming is the fact that those same five schools had a combined average of 45 percent of students who tested at a basic reading level based on exit scores from the English/Language Art portion of the 2017 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exam. Only 28 percent tested at a proficient level, with 21 percent testing at a below basic comprehension.

According to RIF Pittsburgh’s 2016 annual report, 7, 465 kids were served on the Northside (and over 22,000 citywide) through their Storymobile, Everybody Wins and Books for Keeps programs. Since last year, the programs have combined to offer over 14,000 books to children in need.

“RIF works to get books into the hands of kids in our community that otherwise may not have the opportunity to learn to read,” said Kim Jezak a consult at Usborne Books & More.

Jezak has been working as a consultant for Usborne Books & More since 2015. Usborne is publishing company for children’s books that also provides book initiatives for nonprofits. Jezak has helped organize book drives at local hospitals, women’s shelters and most recently teamed up with the Children’s Institute providing 75 new books for their hospital playroom. She has been collaborating with RIF Pittsburgh for the last two months helping provide books and resources for children.

“I love their mobile library and how it brings books to the local park and the communities. The books come to the families who otherwise may not have the means to seek them out,” said Jezak.

Currently, the Storymobile has 13 stops on the Northside, including weekly stops in Fineview and Northview Heights, serving nearly 930 children.  Storymobile visits focus on family and community engagement through reading and book lending.  Children will participate in sing-alongs, reading sessions and a variety of educational games.

A child shares her thoughts on RIF’s Storymobile during last year’s Northview Chalk Walk. Photo courtesy of RIF Pittsburgh.

“We try not to have it be too heavy in a curriculum, we just want parents to realize the value in reading with their children,” said McGee.

Currently King Elementary is the lone Northside location for the Everybody Wins program and has created 90 reading buddy pairs to date. The mentor program partners adult volunteers with students during a lunchtime reading session where they’ll introduce new literature and help educate students on literacy practices.

According to McGee a recent survey from participating students at King Elementary showed that 97 percent of students felt their reading buddy had helped improve their reading skills and 74 percent said they enjoyed reading more now than they did before their introduction to the program.

RIF Pittsburgh’s Books for Keeps is highlighted in 19 sites through the Northside neighborhoods and has already provided over 10,00 books for children this year. Books for Keeps offers children a chance to select and keep books of their choosing and has paired with United Way’s Be a Middle School Mentor program, providing over 850 books to pre-teens last year.

When asked about the power and influence of books and literacy programs like RIF, Jezak said, “It can help them find what career they may be interested in and change the direction of their life. A story may teach them about a new culture or tradition and give them a better understanding of their background and the culture of their peers. A story may encourage a child to be kind, supportive, and give them the courage to change the world!”

Currently, the Storymobile will visit bi-weekly at Allegheny Dwellings in Fineview, on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. starting November 1 through December 13.


Data sources: Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania Department of Education


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