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Dr. Kristi Bradford: Executive Director of Better Basics

After working in schools for 25 years, Dr. Bradford moved onto being the Executive Director of Better Basics where she works to end childhood illiteracy. Better Basics provides academic and cultural enrichment programs for kids in poverty in Alabama to help them improve their reading and math skills. Many kids in poverty fall through the cracks of the education system, and Dr. Bradford is working each day to ensure that the kids in her programs aren’t one of those statistics.

Can you tell us about the connection between poverty and literacy?

Children in poverty often start school academically behind because they don’t have the same opportunities that their middle and higher income peers have. When my kids were young, I was able to take them to the library and the zoo and provide them with enriching experiences that kids in poverty don’t have. Kids who don’t have parents who are able to read to them and who don’t have cultural experiences then don’t have an extensive vocabulary. There was a study which found that kids in poverty have 30,000 fewer words in their vocabulary by the time they’re 3 years old. We’ve worked with 5 year old kids who ask, “How do I turn this on?” when we hand them a book since they’ve never held one in their hands before. If we give these kids a chance and help them academically and provide them with cultural experiences, we can break the cycle of generational poverty.

What do your programs look like?

We have 10 programs that are all geared towards improving literacy in either reading or math. Our two backbone programs use teachers who are retired or taking a break from full-time teaching. They provide kids with targeted instruction for 30-40 minutes three days a week. The goal of these programs is to get kids at or above their grade level and we provide tests before and after the program to see their progress. We also have enrichment programs where teachers help kids with their homework after school and teach academic lessons. There’s a cultural component to these after school programs where people will come in to teach the kids about painting, baseball, coding, tennis, theater— anything that will help to broaden their horizons. We manage Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which provides free books to kids five and under, and have summer programs to encourage year-long learning. With all these academic and cultural programs in mind, we are able to serve kids from birth all the way through 12th grade.

What steps need to be taken to solve the childhood literacy crisis?

Students in poverty have been hit the hardest by the pandemic and are expected to lose 12-16 months of learning. These kids don’t have access to technology and internet for virtual learning, which is a problem that higher income families don’t have to face. We used government funding to help buy laptops for students and put WiFi hotspots in school buses that are driven into neighborhoods for kids to connect to. People don’t think about kids in poverty, so awareness is the first step in solving this. A lot of people aren’t aware of the effects poverty has on children, especially during the pandemic. The data is there to back these points up, and many people are shocked to see how bad the problem really is when they look at test scores and see that plenty of kids are scoring in the 0-26% range in reading and math. We really need to join together as a community to try to advance education in low income areas and schools, whether it’s through financial support, volunteering, or providing programming to help keep learning going in the summer months.

What inspired you to pursue this path?

I’m a retired educator, I was a teacher and administrator in the public school system for 25 years. I often worked with gifted students in middle and upper income areas, so it was a very different experience than what I do now. I had this feeling that I was supposed to do something more with my career and help my community. Things fell into place when this opportunity came up, and I just knew that Better Basics was my calling. It’s a great way to continue working in education and give back to my community. My work has focused on beefing up our data collection system so that we have the qualitative and quantitative data to back up what we are seeing in these schools.


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