It’s 8:30am in Memphis, TN, and BookNook employee Ben Koshland is about to join a Zoom video conference meeting with his team members. It’s a daily call, and since it’s early, he joins it from home – his team doesn’t mind the cat wandering in the background. Besides, they are joining in from Oakland, CA, Atlanta, GA, Portland, ME, and Detroit, MI and they have their own animals to deal with from their home offices. They talk for 17 minutes about their upcoming days and the over 180 sites that they work with across the country helping kids learn how to read.

Ben Koshland, BookNook Memphis Program Manager

At around 9:30am, Ben jumps into his white Subaru and makes the 8 minute drive to the headquarters of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, a University of Tennessee academic hospital bustling with patients, and housing up to 617 patients every night. Just down the street from the nationally-known St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Methodist Le Bonheur benefits from a strong healthcare community in the Mid-South city of Memphis. Ben steps into the elevator of the administrative building for Methodist Healthcare and punches the number 7. As he steps out and waves to Ms. Bev, the always-kind and smiling receptionist, he badges into the floor – the executive suite of the healthcare system. He passes Albert Mosley in the hall, the Chief Mission Integration Officer, and an ordained United Methodist Minister, and talks quickly about how the BookNook implementation is going at a site in North Memphis, and steps into his windowless office.

After lunch with Stacy Smith, director of the Center of Excellence in Faith and Health Equity, Ben fields calls from several of the 12 faith-based sites that have implemented BookNook. A device is broken at a church near the airport. Schools are doing assessments for kids at a faith-based refugee program. A large church nearby needs some data. They’re about to get a rush of over 400 kids collectively and BookNook’s servers are about to light up with kids learning.

And rightfully so. For the 600+ kids that have used BookNook in Memphis over the past 12 months, they’ve seen a 40% increase in reading growth.

How did this partnership of Technology, Churches and Faith-Based Institutions, and Healthcare come about to help kids with their reading? Three people, Gary Shorb, Executive Director of the Urban Child Institute and former longtime CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Stacy Smith, at Methodist Healthcare, and Michael Lombardo, CEO/Founder of BookNook, had an unlikely meeting 18 months ago that would change the outlook for these kids in Memphis forever. An innovative technology company would adapt its model. A forward-looking healthcare organization would see the data that reading ability in children affects long-term health. And a foundation would support this unlikely partnership out of deep care for the children of a city where 53% of students read below a basic level.

Several years ago, a study presented at the American Public Health Association showed a troubling trend: the highest correlated predictor of Teenage Pregnancy was if the teen could read by the end of third grade. This upended the world of education, who’s reading scores have not significantly improved for the past 10 years. Something had to be done, and soon! Many states passed “third grade reading laws” which had either a carrot or a stick for students who were not proficient by the end of third grade. But reading scores barely improved. Many academics debate the reasons why this is happening, but one thing is clear: it’s not for lack of effort by teachers across the United States.

However, school is only a part of the hours that children have each day. And, when that bell rings at 3pm, most parents are still working. Enter the importance of after school programs. And in Memphis, a city with the highest number of churches per capita, the faith community has stepped up in a big way to help care for students between the hours that they get out of school and their parents arrive home from work. Federal data shows the importance of afterschool programming, and this has led to an increase in the funding – specifically with “21st Century Grants” that are given to states to administrate. But the need for afterschool programming far outstrips the funding, so churches across the city of Memphis are taking the health of children in their community seriously by donating time, money, and resources towards their afterschool programs.

Some of these programs are small – like Rev. Tondala Hayward’s at Longstreet United Methodist Church in South Memphis. This church near the headquarters of FedEx and the Memphis Airport, and hosts anywhere from 10-15 students each day after school. Rev. Hayward started this program because, as a former teacher, she saw the need in her community. 

Others are large. Refugee Empowerment Program in Central Memphis is run by the always-honest Cam Blackmon. Cam plays host to over 100 children of refugees every single day, because she and her staff provide services to the refugees as well.

But these afterschool programs lack the financial resources to have certified teachers come and help their kids. While they’re doing amazing work with kids and inbound academic needs, like homework help, they cannot afford to fund a more proactive academic program that pushes kids to increase their reading ability every day. 

BookNook creates a fun an engaging environment for kids while teaching them how to read.

Enter BookNook. This innovative technology product was built specifically for busy teachers (read: every teacher) and non-educators. It takes away the prep time and scaffolds the curriculum for both students and adults so that anyone can help a student learn how to read. 

BookNook, though vastly cheaper than hiring a full time educator, still costs money. So, thanks to the generous support of the Urban Child Institute, these faith-based institutions get BookNook, and Ben’s time, for no cost.

But BookNook, as a small company across many states, doesn’t have the resources to connect with multiple afterschool programs and tell them about the program, as well as help them develop after school programs if they do not already have one. Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, however, already has a strong relationship with churches across the mid-south through its Faith Health initiative. 

Run by Stacy Smith, the Faith Health Initiative activates lay members of churches across the area to promote and encourage preventative health in a church setting. This drastically decreases costs of healthcare over time to the individuals receiving the preventative healthcare. And since Methodist Healthcare is a provider of free healthcare to many thousands of people, it is a great way to encourage overall health of the community.

It was a natural progression to promote this new program to the over 100 churches Stacy Smith works with through the Faith Health Initiative. Since Methodist Healthcare is working to promote healthy living for adults in churches, pushing the leading predictor of healthy living later in life seemed liked an easy addition.

When Ben and Stacy started promoting BookNook, they thought it would be an uphill battle. A new technology program coming to town? They were wrong. In the first few months of the grant, they were already oversubscribed. Word was getting out and more programs wanted in. BookNook and Methodist both took on a few extra programs, even though they weren’t being paid for out of the grant. 

Then, after the first summer with the program, the results were due. Would it have worked? Was all of this effort and cost going to be worth it? The results were better than could have been predicted. Through an outside evaluation, BookNook showed that 95% of students who used BookNook during the summer stayed the same or increased their reading ability. This is in contrast to most students who lose 2-3 months’ worth of ability throughout the summer.

Seeing the success, Urban Child renewed the grant for Methodist Healthcare and BookNook for the coming year, meaning that the organizations can continue pushing for long-term impact in the city of Memphis. That over time, healthcare costs should go down, and that the opportunity for students, regardless of their zip code, is bright.