When Moustafa was first introduced to the local reading and writing nonprofit WordPlay Cincy, he was failing English. Grappling with the transition to 7th grade and a new school, he was unmotivated and disengaged. He put forth no effort in assignments and never raised his hand in the classroom.
After a fun in-class project led by WordPlay staff however, Moustafa decided to try their after-school program WordUP; which was held in a converted teacher's lounge within his school. He attended weekly for a month before approaching the program leader to ask if WordPlay could consider offering after-school programs 5 days a week—he wanted to come every day. Taking his input to heart, WordPlay expanded after-school programming from one day a week to three. Moustafa attended every session.
He began to read aloud in the reading circle where students, staff and program
volunteers dissect relevant issues through shared contemporary works and group discussion. His confidence in reading skyrocketed, as did his writing. Then, one day, Moustafa's teacher came to WordPlay to report that he had earned a high A grade on his major in-class essay of the semester. Moustafa beamed. By the end of the year, he had pulled his overall grade up to a B.
Libby Hunter and Elissa Yancey founded WordPlay in 2012, setting their sights on providing a safe creative space for children and teens in the urban Cincinnati neighborhood of Northside. WordPlay has become so much more since then. WordPlay continues to offer free reading and writing workshops for young people from across the region in their signature space, but it also collaborates inside schools and with other nonprofits across the city.
This year, WordPlay has been awarded a competitive grant from the Ohio Department of Education to bring wrap-around community-based support and mentorship to 100% of the 800+ students at Aiken High School. The project is part of an initiative by the state called Community Connectors, which is funded by state gambling proceeds. During its most recent round of applications, the grant program received 190 project recommend-ations and WordPlay was one of only 71 lead agencies to be chosen for the project.
In the collaboration, entitled “Student-Centered Success: A Strong Future for All,” WordPlay, along with key partners: General Electric, Lawn Life and Villedge, will provide students with academic mentoring, specialized literacy help, increased access to community-based mentorship, after-school enrichment programs, job training, behavioral health treatments and much more.
WordPlay Executive Director Libby Hunter stated,“Community Connectors offers an ideal opportunity to bring Aiken’s students the magic that WordPlay is best known for: community-building between Aiken’s students, families and staff with partner organizations, local businesses, and adult mentors who care about seeing young people find success. Each partner in this collaboration uniquely complements the sum of each others’ efforts for the students, and we hope to make a strong impact for Aiken’s students.”
As Cincinnati struggles with a persistently high childhood poverty rate, Cincinnati Public Schools enrolls a large population of young people defined as “at-risk” students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, are behind in school and/or have high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), more commonly known as trauma. In response to this need, WordPlay started bringing literacy programs directly to schools not long after its founding, which is how the relationship with partner school Aiken began. Though Aiken has a nearly 100 percent attendance rate, the student population is almost entirely low-income, and the graduation rate hovers around 69 percent.
"At Cincinnati Public Schools, we value all of our partnerships and are grateful to the organizations, businesses and individuals that support our students so that they can excel in the classroom and are prepared to take the next step after graduation: enrolling in college, enlisting in the military or seeking employment," said Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Laura Mitchell about the program.
As a nonprofit, WordPlay receives the bulk of its funding from individual donations, private foundation grants and government grants like Community Connectors. This grant enables WordPlay to partner with Aiken, General Electric, Lawn Life and Villedge in order to establish Aiken’s comprehensive program for student-driven success. Each organization involved will receive a portion of the grant funds to help cover costs associated with its role.
Outside of Aiken, WordPlay will continue its practice of providing creative, literacy-building writing programs, creating a safe space for students to build reading and writing skills and practice self-expression. WordPlay Cincy is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded with a mission to help young people in Cincinnati fulfill their potential through reading, writing and storytelling. For more information, please visit www.wordplaycincy.org.
Lawn Life's mission is to provide youth with an opportunity to gain real work experience and transferable skills. They are the founding school partner for Aiken’s SWOOP career tech program, which provides an alternative path to graduation for students who are behind in school by allowing them to log internship hours in place of course credits. For more information, please visit https://www.lawnlife.org/.
Villedge builds capacity within schools, agencies, and communities to support our city's hard-to-reach students. We create a web of support, provide expert coaches or consultants, and leverage the strength to create enrichment activities and growth opportunities so that each community can realize their potential to meet the needs of every student. The organization brings experience in in case management and mentorship and will facilitate staff training and design the evaluation tools for the program. For more information, please visit https://www.thevilledge.org/.
General Electric will not receive a portion of grant funds, but rather will contribute an in-kind gift to match the commitment by the state, in the form of volunteering by their highly trained employees. GE is committed to transforming our communities and shaping the diverse workforce of tomorrow by leveraging the power of GE. They are inspiring others to act by connecting GE people with communities, leading on emerging issues, and convening community leaders to maximize impact. The GE Foundation is powered by the generosity and talent of our employees, who have a strong commitment to their communities.