In the U.S., one in five students has a language-based learning deficiency such as dyslexia. About 65% of Kentucky fourth graders can’t read at grade-level proficiency. In Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, that number jumps to about 70%. And of that 70%, 71.7% are students of color.

If you think those statistics are unacceptable, you’re not alone.

Alumna LaToya Whitlock ’14 made it her business to tackle those statistics and break down barriers for children who struggle to read. She is the co-founder and executive director of Decode Project, a Louisville nonprofit with a mission to eliminate inequities in education by fostering a diverse community of learners prepared to navigate the world.

To put it simply, Decode Project helps teach children to read.

“Essentially what we do is make sure all students — but especially students who live in the west end, Black and brown students and students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds — have access to quality structured literacy curriculum,” Whitlock said. “This is so important because national statistics tell us if a child doesn’t learn how to read by third grade, there is a 90% chance they are not going to learn to read proficiently, ever.”

The value of reading

A lack of reading proficiency can lead to a plethora of other issues as children grow into adulthood, including an inability to participate fully in civic engagement, struggles with home ownership and negatively impacted overall health and well-being. Decode Project works with students primarily in kindergarten through eighth grade who are struggling or early readers to make sure they have the literacy tools needed to become skilled readers, or “decoders,” and to avoid negative outcomes later in life.

As a former school counselor, Whitlock saw firsthand how many students were sent to the office for social and emotional issues and bad behavior. But she says a lot of those issues stemmed from the students’ inability to participate fully in the classroom.

“I don’t believe in ‘bad’ kids or ‘bad’ students,” Whitlock said, explaining how some students would be sent to the office like clockwork during literacy instruction time. “I knew there was something to it and as a collective, they were all struggling readers. I didn’t want their first experience with education to be tainted because they were missing the fundamentals, especially if there’s something we can do to make sure they get it.”

Whitlock is dedicated to making sure all kids “get it” through the Decode Project’s individualized structured literacy programs that set it apart from typical tutoring programs.

“Our spin on this is that we don’t just use the curriculum,” Whitlock said. “Our gift is that we bring a full personality to the program that allows us to build relationships with our kids.”

Training tomorrow’s education leaders

The decoders aren’t the only ones doing all the learning, though. Decode Project strategically partners each child with a literacy mentor, who works one-on-one with the child to overcome literacy obstacles. At the same time, mentors – many of whom are from UofL’s Honors Program – are learning how to become leaders.

The literacy mentors are trained not only on structured literacy, but also anti-racist and anti-bias curriculum, trauma-informed care and resiliency-building techniques, and child abuse prevention, awareness and reporting. All of this helps better prepare the student mentors to make a difference wherever they go after college.

Nino Owens, one of the mentors from the Honors Program, is thankful for the learning and service opportunities he’s received.

“I chose to participate in Decode Project because it was a place I could make a real, tangible change for others,” Owens said. “Even though I’m teaching, I feel like I’ve learned more than I teach. I’ve learned so much about the disparities in literacy rates between white and Black Americans and how being illiterate can really limit you in your life. That became my motivation to keep doing this because I wanted to make a change for at least one person who could carry that on.”

Another Honors Program mentor, Madeline Martinez, came to the U.S. as a child and struggled to learn English in her English as a Second Language classes until a teacher pulled her aside and taught her via a structured literacy program. Martinez gasped with excitement when she began her literacy mentor training on structured literacy and realized this was how she learned to speak and read English herself.

“That was such a full-circle moment for me,” Martinez said. “I am so honored and grateful for the opportunity to impact a student in the same way that I was impacted when I was younger.”

Martinez fostered a relationship with one of her students who showed signs of dyslexia and lacked many foundational literacy skills. She helped him become student of the month in his school and reach only one reading level away from his target.

She described the relationship between decoders and their mentors as one similar to siblings.

“There is a mutual respect and guidance from mentors to decoders, yet we are still able to make jokes and build trust,” Martinez said. “Although mentors have the responsibility to work through content, it is also important to build a relationship with the decoders in order to give them a safe space for questions and learning.”

Empowering students beyond literacy

For the students, Decode Project doesn’t just give them the opportunity to become skilled readers but also creates an environment where they can see themselves succeeding in ways they might not have previously imagined.

“For the kids we’re working with, college doesn’t always seem like an organic option to them,” Whitlock said. “But through Decode, they now have a direct connection to college.”

Whitlock described Lucas Kennedy, a decoder who is 9 years old, adopted, of color and lives in a rural part of Kentucky, who was paired with Owens as his literacy mentor.

“His mom was intentional in putting him in our hands because he hated reading, has a specific learning difference around language and she wanted someone to mentor him that looks like him,” Whitlock said. “So, we found someone who could mirror him as his mentor.”

Owens fostered a virtual relationship with Lucas during the pandemic. However, Owens wanted to do something special and in person for Lucas, so he coordinated with Lucas’ mother to plan a surprise visit to UofL on his birthday.

While on campus, Owens gave Lucas a pair of lightsabers from Lucas’ favorite movie, “Star Wars.” The duo walked around campus and played soccer and Frisbee with each other, leading to Lucas’ declaration that this was his “best birthday ever.”

“That child believes he belongs at UofL now,” Whitlock said. “He can see that as his future because he has been on campus, he knows someone else who is a student on campus and he can aspire to that tangible goal.”

Sparking a light for education

For Whitlock, this work is personal. She struggled as a child in school and was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) through a UofL study when she was in fourth grade. Things finally turned around for her when her teacher began highlighting one task at a time for Whitlock to help out with in the classroom.

“She made me feel like I had a superpower and made me realize I could do my own work well but also help my friends,” Whitlock said. “I found my place as a helper in the classroom and I remember the feeling of being seen and understood by her.”

Whitlock hopes Decode Project can expand to help more students who need it and that it continues to provide quality education, resources, jobs and support for parents in western Louisville, allowing students to live happier, healthier lives.

“Part of the reason I started Decode Project is because I personally know the importance of feeling seen in the classroom and not learning the same way as everyone else,” Whitlock said. “I know what it’s like to feel like your difference is seen as a hindrance instead of a superpower. I felt compelled to spark that light for kids who need it most to find their own superpower.”

Caitlin Brooks
Caitlin Brooks is a communications and marketing coordinator in the Office of Communications and Marketing. Brooks joined OCM after earning her Bachelor of Science and Master of Art degrees in Communication from UofL. Brooks previously worked as a graduate assistant and public speaking instructor at UofL and is an avid Disney fan.