HOW YOU COULD HELP
The seeds were planted 30 years ago for the impact First 25 Inc. is having on at-risk children today. Fittingly, co-founders Todd Hoover and Alonzo Sullivan met on a neighborhood basketball court in an at-risk area of Pinellas County, Florida. 15-year old Mr. Hoover, born and raised in an all-white part of Ohio, had just moved to Florida with his family and was on the search for the best basketball games around. 16-year old Mr. Sullivan, a product of this predominantly black section of town, just happened to be at the courts that day. From this first meeting, Mr. Hoover and Mr. Sullivan have been the best of friends and have talked about racial issues in America with honesty, inquisitiveness, courage and always, with the shared goal of creating a more equal society.
In his mid-20’s Mr. Hoover began to write a series of fictional sports books geared towards inner-city youth. He wanted these kids to have inspiring books written without stereotypes. “All-American sports stories, that just happen to be about black kids,” in Mr. Hoover’s words. These books wrap subtle character education around exciting, fictional sports stories that motivate kids to believe in themselves and to look forward to the future. During this decade Mr. Hoover also wrote a rhyming- picture book and a pamphlet of poetry he titled, “Rap Poems”, specifically for these kids. The plan to help create racial equality in our country began to formulate all those years ago.
Mr. Sullivan, against all the socioeconomic odds facing kids from at-risk communities, went off to play study and play football at the University of Florida. While going to school at Florida, Mr. Sullivan was suddenly thrust into a predominantly white culture, and there began his own philosophical journey about how to change the fact that the clear majority of kids from minority neighborhoods like he grew up in cannot pass a minimum standard reading test. When Mr. Sullivan’s career at Florida ended he moved back to Pinellas County and began to plan with Mr. Hoover how best to remedy the vast inequality that exists between the races.
Fast forward to 2012 and Alonzo and Todd had devised a strategy to rapidly increase the literacy levels of at-risk children. After being rudely rebuffed by the Pinellas County School Administration, Todd and Alonzo began a community-based reading program. Quickly they learned if you have fun with the kids by playing sports with them, give them positive reinforcement about how smart they are, inspire them to believe they can change the country, they will read out loud. When reading out loud and hearing others do the same, the kids begin to gain confidence which leads to more reading, which leads to more confidence, and on and on.
Mr. Hoover also learned that giving out free Gatorade® as a reward for reading out loud works like a charm. Many of these kids doubt their intelligence because they have always been told they cannot read well, but when they show the courage to read out loud in front of others, and then receive inspiring, positive reinforcement, the kids begin to feel good about themselves. Then when rewarded with a Gatorade® from a person they have already begun to admire, the kids are happy, and when the kids are happy they keep reading. When the kids keep reading, they get better. Simple!
Finally, the school system began to take notice of Mr. Hoover’s persistence and allowed him into one of the toughest middle schools in St. Petersburg, and the results were amazing. Kids showed up nearly 2 hours before school started to play sports and then read as a group in the front office. 18-25 kids showed up every week for the First 25 program. Teachers saw the difference in their kids and invited the program into their classes. Alonzo and Todd worked with between 50 – 60 kids every week. Since they were both volunteers and had to work regular jobs, the program was for only one morning per week. (Please see the promotional video in the Videos section for Teacher and Principal Testimonials). They worked with over 300 total students.
The scientific data showed breathtaking improvement with the school system’s own test scores verifying this improvement. The teachers saw great progress, both in reading ability and behavior. The Principal of this predominantly black school advocated for the program to district leadership, but all to no avail. Todd and Alonzo met with district leaders in an attempt to have the school district support a funded pilot-program to see if the program could be successfully expanded to impact even more kids, but they were rudely rebuffed. It seemed these career educational bureaucrats were offended that two outsiders felt they had a better answer for how to fix the ongoing problem of black illiteracy. Todd called for an independent investigation of why a district struggling so much with black illiteracy would have antipathy for a volunteer program that had actually been proven to work. After conducting a sham investigation, district leaders shut down the First 25 program and misled the public about the reasons why. There can only be two reasons why they shut the program down. First, bureaucratic arrogance which invades the ego, causing district leaders to look suspiciously on anything they themselves have not created. The second potential reason, actual racism, is almost too hard to believe, but the Federal Department of Education is now formally investigating Pinellas County School system for just that charge.
Alonzo and Todd have not slowed down helping kids though. They began a First 25 reading program, with the help of the local YMCA, in the very neighborhood Alonzo grew up in and the results have been outstanding. Over 400 total kids participating, with 60 or so, being regulars. Reading levels up, confidence up and smiles all around. Most exciting about this community-based program is that many of the older kids in the First 25 program have signed up to tutor elementary-age kids from the same neighborhoods. Younger kids benefit by having older kids from their same neighborhoods reading with them and the older kids benefit because whenever you teach something, you get better at it as well. First 25‘s goal is to have reading become cool in the black community, because if it does, racial literary equality will surely follow!