Philly Reading Coaches



Almost 42 percent of third-grade students in Philadelphia are reading at or above grade level — which means that about 58 percent are reading below that level. For elementary school students, reading proficiency is critical not only for doing well in school, but for remaining in school in the future. In response to this situation, the City of Philadelphia put forth the Citywide Out-of-School Time (OST) Initiative, which has the long-term goal of increasing access to quality OST programs. One of its first objectives is to implement quality, research-based OST activities and approaches, or models that could produce measurable literacy outcomes that are also affordable enough to be established citywide.

Philly Reading Coaches is one of the OST programs being carried out to promote the reading outcomes of Philadelphia students. Funded by the William Penn Foundation, the project will adapt the Oregon-based SMART early literacy reading program, in which volunteers provide one-on-one tutoring. MDRC will be providing technical assistance and formative feedback — coaching on how to foster what is working well and to overcome barriers — to a collaborative team within the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director’s Office as they plan and implement the project. MDRC will also help the core team create a system that tracks short- and long-term outcomes and metrics to gauge the effectiveness of operational protocols, student early literacy progress, and volunteer, family, and community outcomes.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The project will begin with a six-month pilot focusing on implementation of the program. MDRC will support the Philadelphia team in two ways. The first is in preparing for implementation, which includes making adaptations to the program model, recruiting and training volunteers, and identifying after-school programs as possible Philly Reading Coaches sites. The second is by helping the team develop assessment tools to understand the impact of the program and any necessary program modifications.

The city’s goal is to implement the project at full scale (across the city) beginning in September 2018 and to serve students from kindergarten to third grade for an additional two years beyond the pilot.  

The MDRC team’s key activities for this project are as follows:

  1. Provide technical assistance to the core team to assist in the design and operations of the program. This will include bringing insights from MDRC’s behavioral science work to communications with volunteers and families.

  2. Work with the core team to develop outcomes and metrics and to support the development of the data system(s) needed to collect information to assess student outcomes; civic, volunteer, and family engagement; and operational protocols and procedures for the program model.

  3. Prepare annual internal memos to the core team, contribute to a late 2019 brief to share results on implementation and student outcomes, and make decisions on next steps for implementing the program.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

This project is designed to address the needs of students in Philadelphia. It also fits into larger citywide initiatives focusing on civic engagement.

Philly Reading Coaches Model

Students participating in the after-school program will meet with volunteers twice a week to engage in one-on-one, 30-minute reading sessions. Volunteer readers will help children choose from a series of “window” books, which teach them about their external world, and “mirror” books, which reflect their own cultural experiences. The focus of the reading time is on making it fun and stimulating children’s interest in reading. To further stimulate an interest in reading, students are given two books per month to take home so that each student can accrue a personal library of books. The MDRC technical assistance team for the project is also exploring strategies to increase parental involvement with the program by encouraging parents to set aside time to read with their children. The intention is that this will both help reinforce children’s reading motivation and establish a practice of reading outside of the volunteer sessions.

Citywide Civic Engagement

In an effort to maintain coordination with other citywide efforts, the MDRC technical assistance team is working with the City of Philadelphia Managing Director’s Office on using civic engagement metrics for the volunteers and ensuring consistency across other city projects. This includes collaborating with Philadelphia Rebuild and the Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service.

The timeline for implementing the program is as follows:

Start-up: Provide support to the team as they adapt the SMART model, recruit volunteers, and put systems in place to begin the pilot.

January-June 2018: Pilot the program in three elementary schools with the goal of serving 180 students. Explore other potential out-of-school settings for a full-scale program, through Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

School years 2018-2019 and 2019-2020: Implement the program in 10 to 17 sites with the goal of serving 800 children per year.