Shelby County Schools & Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare Announce Greater Memphis K-5 Reading Initiative with BookNook

Shelby County Schools (SCS) is not taking any chances with supporting struggling readers, especially those who were identified as in need of reading intervention well before the pandemic suddenly upended classrooms and daily teacher-student engagement across Greater Memphis. To address reading literacy as a critical need, and to minimize the “Covid slide” plaguing other districts around the country, SCS announces an exciting expanded partnership with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare (MLH). This reading initiative scales technology-infused guided reading through BookNook to support 40 elementary and K-8 schools, plus 35 combined afterschool programs, congregations, and charter schools across the city.  

Triggering the need for wide-scale support, reading literacy has been identified as a social determinant of student and family health, and one of several economic and social conditions that influence differences in health status. Dr. Albert Mosley, senior vice president and chief mission integration officer at MLH, explains why this is so critical to all families: 

“Based on the 2019 TNReady Assessment, about 75% of SCS third graders across the district are not where they need to be with their grade level reading. Third grade reading is a predictor of graduating from high school, and predicts health literacy. If a patient can’t fully understand what a doctor is saying and can’t accurately take medications, that will have a direct impact on health outcomes. This is why third grade learning is both an education and healthcare issue,” states Dr. Mosley.

“SCS and MLH are two longstanding community institutions with a shared commitment to serving and improving the well-being of Shelby County/Memphis families,” said Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray. “We’re mobilizing additional resources and tools to bring more students the reading support they need to put them on the right path toward academic success.”

What makes the program extraordinary is the coalition of partners that are mobilizing hundreds of adults as reading tutors. A massive collaborative effort is underway with Greater Memphis nonprofit organizations, churches, and other faith-based institutions. Dedicated community members from groups like Red Door Urban Missions and Neighborhood Christian Centers play a dominant role in bringing reading support to struggling students and families. 

“No app can teach kids how to read. It takes a human touch,” says BookNook CEO Michael Lombardo, “BookNook enables more opportunities for adults to be a part of the equation. From church volunteers to teachers in virtual classrooms, to families at home, caring adults are coming together to help kids struggling with reading, using our technology as a bridge for both connecting and together making life-changing reading breakthroughs.” 

The nucleus of the partnership was a spring 2019 pilot with a seed grant from Shelby County-based Urban Child Institute (UCI) and support from Read901. That summer, 95% of the 979 participating Memphis students either maintained (60%) or increased (35%) their grade level equivalency. 

Then as COVID-19 hit, BookNook quickly pivoted to provide virtual tutoring to complement their tech-based platform, achieving positive results nationally with an average of 3.5 months of literacy progress during the spring school shutdown (and even further results to date).

SCS launched another pilot program in April 2020, funded through the CARES Act for 25 participating after-school sites and schools, with the help of volunteer tutors from both SCS and City Year Memphis. Among the 417 students in the pilot, average projected reading growth increased nearly four times over, with progress measured against a full year of traditional instruction, effectively reversing “Covid slide.”

The tremendous success of these earlier programs has prompted SCS to expand to 40 schools, scaling up the number of students and families who will benefit from strengthening both reading and health literacy. BookNook will be implemented based on individual school needs, whether as part of the regular curriculum, as school-day interventions, or as after-school enrichment, with the community coalition continuing to play a prominent role in the initiative. As the cloud-based BookNook runs on any device, including SCS tablets issued to students, the anticipation is for a seamless transition from distance to in-person learning when students return to the classroom.

In total, with the expanded partnership, a minimum of 3,000 K-5 students will receive live interventions, guided reading support, and remote tutoring for the 2020-21 school year. For more information, contact SCS Media Relations at

About BookNook
BookNook is a social enterprise on a mission to close the reading opportunity gap by using technology to provide every student access to world-class teaching, whether at school or online. Founded in 2016, BookNook has quickly grown to partner with hundreds of schools, school districts, and nonprofits across 32 states. It has received national recognition for its impact on students’ reading ability and its unique equity-based pricing model.

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Aaron Waters


PGCPS Reads: The Story of Beginning Readers

The Story of Benji: Benji is a pretty good reader. He’s seven attending first-grade classes at Dora Kennedy French Language Immersion School in Greenbelt, Md.  Like many children in the county – and the country – he is attending those classes at home.

Children at immersion schools or who are learning English as their second language often have to work a little harder to keep up with their reading skills even under normal conditions, because they are learning two sets in both languages. This expected hindrance has been exacerbated by distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Knowing and seeing that, Benji’s mother Jaunae said she signed Benji up for BookNook tutoring through Prince George’s County Public Schools PGCPS READS program, “The first day I got the email.” “BookNook, they say it’s about improving reading skills not teaching skills,” Jaunae said, “But he surprises me now that he knows certain words and BookNook is helping him break down the words into prefixes and suffixes.” 

She said Benji is clearly “learning things”, his understanding of syllables and rhyming has greatly improved and that daily he is able to pick out and read words she “wouldn’t expect from a first grader.” “We are still working on inflection and pauses,” Jaunae said. “But they are teaching comprehension skills too and I didn’t realize that.”

The Story of Bradley: In another part of Prince George’s County, Dalia, mother to 5-year-old Bradley, said she was also surprised with the speed of her son’s reading growth working with BookNook only two days a week. He moved up several reading levels in school since he began tutoring in November.

“Bradley is a beginner. He barely knew his letters, ” Dalia said. Heading into first grade at Greenbelt Elementary School school next year, she was worried that with the distance learning Bradley would fall behind.  

“He knew some sounds but he didn’t have any recognition of those sounds to the letters really … now he knows almost all of his letters and the sounds,” Dalia said.  And she said his tutoring is now in line with and reinforcing his daily classwork.  “Anytime he has tutoring on Monday or Wednesday, I see the next day he is a little more confident in his school’s virtual classes,” she said.  

But what is keeping the boys interested is the sense of community across schools that they are building in their pods. It is perhaps the aspect both parents said is what is driving their child’s interest.  Both boys are in virtual pods with children from other Prince George’s County Public Elementary schools.

Benji has three other children in his BookNook pod, Jaunae said, adding, “ His favorite part is talking to the other kids about what happened in the books they read and talking to them about their schools and their neighborhoods, and it’s like he has a whole new set of friends.”

“So, I found it rewarding that all the kids are from the same county,” Dalia said.  “He looks forward to seeing different faces and that’s what gets him excited to come to the sessions.”

The Results: Both boys’ growth has led to both an increase in reading comprehension, confidence, ability and interest.  Jaunae says Benji now reads to himself more and asks more questions when they read together.  “And his confidence is much higher than it was  … much higher.”

Bradley can now find and open the BookNook App and get into his pod on his own, and is able to identify more than pictures. “I can see easily how much they are reading and how much they are growing,” said Dalia. “He basically started from zero and has moved up tremendously, in what has basically been two months,”  She said, adding, “when you include the breaks holidays.” 

Bradley’s sessions are Mondays and Wednesdays and I remember on ‘M.L.K.’ Monday he was crushed that he didn’t have BookNook twice that week.”

Results like this truly take a village. It starts with determined students, eager to learn, aided by thousands of parents, tutors, caregivers, educators, paraprofessionals, AmeriCorps members, and volunteers.

To date, BookNook is now in 34 states with new city and district-wide partnerships blossoming every week, from urban non-profit coalitions in Detroit, MI, to coastal schools across California, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and Maryland.

Learn more about BookNook