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VOL. 127 | NO. 241 | Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Big Changes Help Stabilize Literacy Mid-South

By JONATHAN DEVIN

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For the last year and a half, bookkeeping has been on Kevin Dean’s mind as much as books.

The executive director of Literacy Mid-South said that sweeping changes announced for 2013 will increase the organization’s foot print while stabilizing its finances.

“We understand how we can affect the community more than just being in this building,” said Dean, who became executive director of the 35-year-old nonprofit organization in May 2011. “We want to be a community-based organization, not a building that’s constrained by square footage.”

Decentralization of the organization’s Adult Learning Program is at the heart of six changes announced Sunday, Dec. 9.

In 2013 Literacy Mid-South will leave its two-story, 10,000-square-foot learning center on Cooper Street in Midtown for a smaller space to be determined.

Dean said he is still negotiating for a space, but that it will be no more than 1,500 to 2,000 square feet and contain nothing more than cubicle space and a conference room. There is a possibility that the new space may be donated, but if that does not work, Literacy Mid-South will lease space along a main Memphis Area Transit Authority bus line in a more centrally-located part of town.

One-on-one tutoring and small group tutoring will take place in more than 20 area libraries, whose staff members will be trained to assist literacy tutors and students in finding a quiet place to work and learning resources.

Also, the organization will develop a program to train and certify other nonprofit organizations to operate their own tutoring programs at their own sites, something the organization has done very little of historically.

“We realize that we can only serve 550 people a year and we’re at capacity,” Dean said. “We’re not worried about the competition, we welcome competition.”

Formerly known as Memphis Literacy Council, Literacy Mid-South began in shared office space at Memphis City Schools’ Messick Adult Learning Center, offering only one-on-one tutoring usually in libraries.

At the time that the organization renovated and moved into its current building on Cooper, the group made an intentional push toward center-based learning. Dean said that times have changed once again.

“If this was 1997, I’d be all for centralizing too, because we didn’t have the communication and the technology we have now,” Dean said. “Now we can actually track people and get feedback from people. We’re a new organization. Memphis Literacy Council was there to teach people to read. Our goal is also to teach organizations to teach people to read.

“I want our employees out in the community. Everything we’re doing is to make things easier for the student. Meeting them where they are at their local libraries allows them not to have to take a bus ride here. Some people literally get on the bus at 5 a.m. to get here at 9 a.m.”

Tutor resources will now be loaded onto the group’s website by an Americorp/VISTA intern placed especially for that purpose. Tutors and students will set up their appointments without calling in to Literacy Mid-South’s office and they will report tutoring hours by text.

Staff members will conduct progress checks on samples of students every six months.

The new changes will allow the organization to cut expenses including $6,000 a month in rent and utilities and focus on growing its database of individual donors, something Dean said had not been done prior to his hiring.

“I walked in and the organization had not been doing fundraising and people did not understand the new brand,” Dean said. “The community had become disengaged with the program outside of our volunteers. We had too many programs and they didn’t all fit together. We would have been closed most likely by early this year.”

Since then Literacy Mid-South has restored its depleted money market account to more than $100,000 and its reserve fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis to more than $300,000. New rules have been established to provide board oversight of withdrawals from the reserve account.

Recently the organization received a $200,000 challenge grant from a private donor to increase individual donors, and two new special events will be announced in 2013.

Other announcements made Sunday include changing hours with expanded meeting times for tutors and students on weekends, two new staff hires and changing job descriptions for existing employees, and no more fees for students in the program.

The new changes take effect Jan. 1.

Dean said the response from donors and grantors has been very positive as have responses from students and tutors involved in focus groups that helped shaped plans over the last year.

Asked if the changes were directly linked to the agency’s financial troubles, Dean said no, that organizationally Literacy Mid-South had been due for an overhaul regardless of it budget.

“The changes might be uncomfortable at first, but I trust our staff enough to know that’s going to work out,” Dean said. “I didn’t come here to keep things the way they were.”

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