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We started Gift of Knowledge Academy, an independent, nonprofit, K-2 school, because we saw a great need to provide quality early literacy and math instruction where all kids could learn to read and excel at math. Average reading scores reported by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained relatively unchanged for over a decade. Research shows that students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Research has also shown that 75% of students who struggle with reading in the third grade never catch up. BEST NC’s 2020 Facts & Figures show that “64% of North Carolina 4th grade students did not meet proficiency standards on the 2019 NAEP reading assessment.” It also showed 59% of fourth grade students did not meet proficiency standards in math. The numbers were much worse for Blacks and Hispanics.

To date, we have lived up to our mission and vision statements. Our mission is that we are committed to providing a firm foundation in literacy and math to low-income kids in grades K-2 that will give them the ability to reach their full potential. Our vision is to become the premiere school where 100% of our students are at or above grade level in literacy and math by the end of the second grade. In spite of the challenge of going to online classroom instruction as a result of the restrictions placed on schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with our parents support, we were able to complete 10 weeks of online classroom instruction.

We use research-based reading instruction where all students can and do learn to read. The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) has determined that all reading instruction should include five components — phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension. We incorporate these five components, as well as writing, spelling, sight words, all while implementing a multisensory approach to learning. For math, we teach number sense, which is key to understanding and excelling in math. All instruction in literacy and math meets and/or exceeds common core state standards.

We have had 12 kindergarten students to go through our program since our first school year in 2016-17. Seven of the 12 had birthdays after August 31, which means that they started when they had not yet turned 5 years old. They turned 5 between late September and mid-November. Several of our kindergarten students did not know the alphabet when they began, but all of our students were reading by the end of January of their kindergarten year. All of our second graders have been at or above grade level in literacy and math when they graduated. Two of them were reading on a fourth grade level.

The majority of the families we serve receive the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship, which pays $4,200 to families to send their child to a nonpublic school. Although they receive this scholarship, the additional tuition cost not covered by the scholarship continues to be a challenge for most of the families. We solve that cost challenge by covering the remaining tuition cost through grants and our other fundraising efforts. We are committed to covering the remaining tuition cost for our low-income families so that these families can exercise their choice to get a quality education for their child at no additional cost to them. All children, regardless of their socioeconomic conditions, deserve the opportunity to receive a quality education.

We have a board and staff who are committed to our mission and vision and personally hold themselves accountable for the success of our students; our school motto is: Together we all succeed! We believe that the success of our school is dependent upon the success of our students; we are not successful unless all of our students are successful. It is not good enough for one or two of our students to succeed, all of our students must succeed.

I purposefully chose the bookworm as our mascot. The dictionary says that a bookworm is someone who loves to read and loves to learn. We try to make learning fun so that our students will develop a love of learning. We use lots of learning games that reinforce what we teach and make it fun for the students to learn. During our morning activities, our students recite our school creed, which reminds them of what it means to be a bookworm.

We are passionate about eradicating illiteracy, decreasing the dropout rate, bridging the literacy gap, and helping to build the self-esteem and self-confidence of beginning readers and learners. Gift of Knowledge Academy is making a huge impact in the lives of the students, their parents, and the surrounding communities.

Deborah Watkins

Deborah Watkins is the founder and principal of Gift of Knowledge Academy. She and three other retired North Carolina Central University alumni started this independent, nonprofit K-2 school. In addition to the school, she tutors students in grades K-12 in literacy and math. She has also written a set of three children’s books for beginning readers (Read? Yes, I Can!) and an inspirational book of poetry (Seasoned With His Love).