TU alumnus and executive director of Reading Partners Tulsa Justin Harlan is making a difference in in his community. He can count numerous reasons to be proud of the past two years he has helmed the nonprofit. During the 2018-19 school year, Reading Partners Tulsa engaged more than 1,900 community volunteers who provided more than 55,000 tutoring sessions to more than 1,700 students across 27 reading centers in Tulsa. Also among those points of pride: His alma mater is the largest source of volunteers for Reading Partners Tulsa. A total of 112 TU students, faculty and staff tutored 164 grade schoolers at nearby Kendall-Whittier Elementary over a span of 1,528 individual sessions.
True Blue Neighbors lend a hand
TU’s True Blue Neighbors initiative embraces the university’s commitment to service as a catalyst for building a stronger community. Teaming with Reading Partners offers the perfect fit for both organizations’ missions. Across all of its service initiatives, 2,842 True Blue Neighbors volunteers logged nearly 80,000 service hours in 2018 — a $1.95 million impact to the community.
For the upcoming school year, Reading Partners still needs hundreds of volunteers to commit to just one hour a week of reading with a struggling student in Tulsa Public Schools. Learn more about Reading Partners and how to become a volunteer here.
Longtime reading partner Steve Denton
Steve Denton, director of new student programs at TU, has volunteered his time as a reading partner for four-and-a-half years. TU offers employees up to eight hours of time off each month to engage in volunteer service through True Blue Neighbors, and Denton chose to spend his time as a reading partner. “If you look at the statistics and how low literacy contributes to factors from homelessness to incarceration, to me, it seems like a small thing to do to make a big difference,” he said.
Closing the literacy gap
Above all the foundational skills taught during a child’s elementary school years, reading ability can influence future academic — and life — success. However, when students hit the fourth grade, a discernible gap emerges between those who read proficiently and those who don’t. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only one-third of fourth graders in the U.S. read at a proficient level.
Reading Partners engages community volunteers to serve as tutors for students struggling to read. Each volunteer receives training using a straightforward, easy-to-follow curriculum, and commits one hour a week to helping students catch up.
The results are remarkable. Students enrolled with Reading Partners made great gains over the past academic year, with 89% reaching their primary literacy growth goals. Additionally, 92% of kindergarten through second grade students in Reading Partners gained foundational literacy skills needed to read proficiently by the third grade.
TU alumnus tapped to lead Reading Partners
Harlan received both his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Master of Business Administration degrees from The University of Tulsa, then went on to work for Teach for America during its Tulsa launch in 2009. After seven years – plus a year helping to found Collegiate Hall – he settled at Reading Partners Tulsa in 2017 as the organization’s executive director.
Harlan notes that one reason he loves the organization so much is because of how much it’s driven by the community. “Our mission lives and dies by how many people help us out,” he said; and fortunately, Tulsa has stepped up to the task.
Across the country, there are 13 other Reading Partners regions, including those in Los Angeles and New York, but Tulsa has the largest one. “I think that captures the essence of Tulsa perfectly because it really is a community that will wrap its arms around a problem,” said Harlan.
Time at TU
Looking back at his decision to come to TU, Harlan called it a “no-brainer.” “When I came to the campus, I just knew that it was the place for me,” he said.
Harlan loved the combination of the small campus and small class sizes along with the big city benefits. “It’s really the best of both worlds.”
But it wasn’t just his experiences in class that made him love TU. Harlan was active on campus as a part of a fraternity as well as being student body president. When looking back, Harlan attributes his experiences outside the classroom to shaping where he is today.