For this week’s segment of Hometown Heroes, AY About You sits down with Sherra Bennett, interim executive director of AR Kids Read.
Bennett was born in Pine Bluff, and her family later moved to Michigan. Bennett attended the University of Michigan for her undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work and nonprofit management with a concentration in social policy and evaluation.
“I often joke that I grew up in my mother’s classroom,” Bennett says. With a sister who is a principal, a mother who has spent her career teaching, and a father who is the vice chancellor of an Arkansas university, it’s no wonder that Bennett’s main concerns have always been in education and education policy and their social and communal impact.
“I always had an interest in the barriers. My mother was in special education,” Bennett shares. She’d grown up thinking about these concepts and always found herself working with youth, whether it was in Berlin or Cape Town, Nashville or Pine Bluff.
This led Bennett to joining AR Kids Read as the Program Director in 2020.
“I’m a person who always tries to research and look for different solutions,” Bennett says. “I was reading about different education issues and some of the priorities of the government, and the impact of education, particularly literacy rates.”
Bennett had a more defined goal and focus for educational improvements here in the Natural State.
“Literacy is important to the state of Arkansas, and it’s something that the state needs to continue to focus on,” she says. “That includes increasing teaching capacity and making sure that the additional training that is needed is present, and making sure that we can coordinate services. The community school model adds the capacity to address some of the issues that teachers and schools cannot address on their own.”
AR Kids Read, founded in 2012, was formed out of a faith-based network that rounded up leaders and volunteers who were invested and interested in supporting students and reading efforts.
“Our ultimate mission is to nurture a love for reading through relationships. We want every child to be able to read on grade level. Children who are six months to one year behind in grade level are the primary target,” Bennett shares. “We train volunteers in literacy so that they can help students improve their reading. We work to add capacity to the schools, since the schools may not be able to offer that literacy support.”
Prior to the pandemic, all of the tutoring and service options at AR Kids Read were in person, one on one. The pandemic changed that.
“COVID provided a challenge and opportunity that worked in our favor,” Bennett reveals. “We were able to develop the virtual model for AR Kids Read. We were also able to provide virtual tutoring to students and we were able to expand our services outside of our typical service areas. Lots of parents were just becoming aware of how their students were doing since students were at home.”
AR Kids Read is always looking for volunteers to work for 40 minutes to an hour over an 8- to 10-week term.
“We are always looking for community partners, foundation and corporation support, donor support and grants,” Bennett says. “We are always looking for community and event support, community coalitions, and to work alongside issues that would help us in our literacy campaign around Arkansas.”
If you’re interested in volunteering with AR Kids Read, be sure to check out its website for more information.