It’s the classic story of the haves, and have nots.

Basic foundational skills like being able to read is often a challenge for inner city children. Many don’t have a home, and often go from one grandma’s house to the other grandma’s house or to an auntie’s house. They don’t have their own bedroom. They don’t know what they’re going to be eating or where they’re going to be sleeping from one day to the next. Their parents often work multiple jobs, and it’s difficult for them to be involved at school. And the schools lack resources to engage in deep meaningful learning.

The journey to racial reconciliation requires an understanding of the importance of education and the very real disparities that exist for lower income children. We talked to 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year and Executive Director of ARISE2Read, Karen Vogelsang about the disparity and literacy needs in Memphis specifically.

She fell in love with urban education, and learned that, every year, it was her job to establish a relationship with each student (and their families) and learn about some of the challenges that they were coming from.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why literacy is a key to being able to overcome some of the systemic problems that have existed from generations of inequity.
  • Why the Kindergarten through Second Grade are the years where kids learning to read and other critical foundational skills.
  • How the local economy is positively impacted and crime goes down when high schoolers graduate instead of dropping out.
  • How to be a tangible help in your community’s literacy needs.

Read the transcript of the podcast below.


Karin (00:00): Welcome to our conversations that educate and elevate. I am Karin Conlee, the executive director of Race for Reconciliation. And I am so glad that you are joining us. This is a really important topic that we’re talking on today on this episode. And I have a fantastic guest, which I’m thrilled to also say is a friend of mine. Welcome. If you can see by video, you can see my guest, Karen Vogelsang. Karen, thank you for coming and joining me today.

Karen (00:32): Thank you, Karin. I’m thrilled to be a part of this.

Karin (00:33): Well, you and I have a history that goes back probably 10 plus years. but we had no idea in those early days where our paths would both go and are here today as the executive director of ARISE2Read for those of you who don’t know Karen, you need to know Karen, she’s an amazing woman. In addition to her position at ARISE2Read, she has brought really a lifetime in the education field and the distinction of being the 2015 Tennessee teacher of the year, among many other things that you’ve done. But I’m excited to have you here today because literacy is one of the three areas that we have identified as an organization that we want to really be able to help come alongside organizations that are doing the work on the ground in each city, helping solve the literacy problem. And I’m thrilled to be able to say that ARISE2Read is our first city partner. So, we will partner with our event in Memphis and some of the funds raised in our Memphis event will go to help the literacy crisis through partnering with ARISE2Read. So, thank you so much for your partnership and for what you’re doing in Memphis.

Karen (01:56):  Thank you, Karin.

Karin (01:59): So, I had told you before we started this, that I really would love to, kind of tap into your background as an educator and really, as we talk about educate and elevate, we want to help people maybe that are just beginning this journey or along the journey in the space of racial reconciliation for people to understand just the importance of education and really some of the disparities that exist out there. And so maybe just as a starting point, Karen, tell us a little bit about your journey as an educator, as it relates to the different schools and environments that you’ve been in.

Karen (02:42):  Absolutely. You know, I’m a mid-career educator. I was in the field of banking for 14 years before the Lord called me to the classroom. And so, I was kind of a middle-aged woman when I first started this journey in education and I had the opportunity to start teaching in a school, very close to my home and a very diverse school, a third African-Americans, third Hispanic, third white.

But basically, out here in the suburbs and I taught there for four years, fell in love with the families and the children that I was serving. And then my assistant principal became the principal at an inner-city school in Frasier. And right now, in Frazier, the rate of childhood poverty is roughly 53 percent for children under the age of 18. And when I went into that classroom, in 2007, I thought I was an educated woman. I read the news, I watched TV. I knew about poverty. I learned about urban education when I received my master’s degree. So, I really thought I understood what I was walking into. And when I got into the school, I literally, there’s only one word I can think of to describe it. I was shell shocked. I had 31 first graders. I had a little girl who didn’t speak, nobody could tell me why she wouldn’t speak. I had just this broad range of abilities in the classroom.

And I was literally going home crying every day because I was like, what on earth have I done? What have I walked into? I thought I understood what I was going into. And I had a teacher across the hall that had always taught in an urban setting. She kind of gave me some advice and I took that advice to heart. And the short version of the story is I fell in love with urban education, but in the process of my time, I was at Keystone elementary for nearly 10 years. And I taught first through fourth grade there. And what I learned was every year, it was my job to establish a relationship with each of my students and their families and learn about some of the challenges that they were coming from. I think about my sweet Zetia that I taught in first grade and third grade and fourth grade, she didn’t have her own home. She went from grandma’s house to grandma’s house, to auntie’s house. She didn’t have her own bedroom.

She didn’t have a chest of drawers where she kept her clothes. I had a little boy that I taught in first grade. His mom was a drug addict. His father, not as father. He didn’t know who his father was. His brother was a dealer, his brother basically he broke into our school. I mean, I was just learning about all of these challenges that the children were facing. And it was overwhelming. And right here I was, I thought I was an educated woman coming from the suburbs, understanding what my students were facing on a day in day out basis. And really, they became my teacher. They helped me understand the challenges that they were facing. And a lot of times we hear people say that they’re bad kids and they’re not bad kids. They’re just in challenging circumstances. And we have to understand that those challenging circumstances may often prevent them from really getting the education that they need. Because like Jay Kwan told me one day, miss V, I’m not worried about doing my math homework. I don’t know what I’m going to be eating or where I’m going to be sleeping tonight. Those were the kinds of things that I heard from my students. And so we have to understand that there are children in our community that are facing very challenging circumstances, and we have to find a way to come together as a community to not only educate all of our children and provide them with the resources that they need, but also to understand that they’re facing additional challenges that we need as a community to come together and help address if we really want to change what the city of Memphis looks like, if we really want to get to the potential that Memphis has. And I truly believe that Memphis has tremendous potential much more than where we are today.

Karin (06:55): Okay. You’ve, mentioned Memphis and that’s where we will start and launch our first event. And really, we have a heart to see, that the city of Memphis really transformed. And I know that’s part of the heart of ARISE2Read.

Karen (07:13):  Right.

Karin (07:14): And talk about this maybe in a broader sense, when I know that you’ve had influence nationally, you’ve been a part of conversations that are broader than Memphis. What do you see as you look at the topics of poverty and education, what are the things that you feel like, people need to know and the ways that may be like, I think about in Memphis in particular, you know, the city schools versus the County schools, when we were in that kind of timeframe, and then the burden schools, all the suburbs created their own school districts?

Karen (08:00): Right.

Karin (08:01):  What are the things that, as an educator, that you understand about that we, as people who maybe aren’t educators, we want to know.

Karen (08:13):  You know, the words as you’re talking to me about that care in the words that come to my mind, or have, and have not. When I think about the fact that we combined as one entire district for the one year, actually the year when I was teacher of the year, I really thought when we were one giant school district that we had some potential there. And then of course the municipalities made the decision to break off. And so basically it kind of left Shelby County schools as Memphis city schools. And, you know, I taught in a suburban school for one year. And it was so different from my experience when I was teaching in Frasier, parent involvement, the majority of the children that I served when I taught in Frazier were single parent families. I can only think of in all the years I was there that there was one intact family with a mom and dad at home. Mom’s working, not just one job, but three jobs, or mom’s working three jobs and grandparents raising the children of the grandparents coming in for teacher conferences and things like that.

Not having all the resources that we really needed to serve the children. I worked for an incredible principal who made sure that resources went into the classroom, not into the administrative aspect of running the school. And the same thing happened when I was in a suburban school for one year, but this suburban school had such high parent involvement. So, for example, during book fairs, I mean, there were thousands of dollars that parents would spend over the course of the year.

And the children in that school building had access to just an incredible amount of resources. So, if there was anything that I needed, whether it was a book on tape or CD or a math, manipulative science materials, the science lab all stocked up to be able to actually do experiments. All those things were happening in that suburban school, in too many of our urban schools, the resources just aren’t available for really deep learning to take place. Yes, all the basics were there, the textbooks, the pencils, the paper, things like that, but really going deep into the resources that are needed to really make learning, engaging in meaningful from urban school to urban school, you probably won’t see all those resources in every school, which means there’s not an equitable distribution of resources across the schools.

And that means we’re not giving all of our children. And that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, educating all of our children with equity, which means we’re giving them access to whatever it is that they need to be able to have deep, meaningful learning experiences for them. So that was definitely an eye opener for me. And I can tell you that my husband can show you the receipts. When you’re teaching in an urban setting like that, as a teacher, you are spending a lot of your own money. If you’ve got some disposable income in buying things like backpacks and pencils and notebooks and papers. And one year I bought a little girl pair of shoes. I took another little girl when she graduated from fifth grade, I took her out shopping. So, she had a dress to wear. Her fifth-grade graduation, teachers are out there spending their money in those settings to be able to provide the resources that the children need beyond just, you know, a basic education.

Karin (12:01): Right. You know, Karen, as you’re talking and talking about those deep resources, I’ll never forget the conversation that I had with my daughter. And when she was, I guess in second grade, she was diagnosed as dyslexic. And, you know, we were fortunate. We had the means to put her in a private school. But we didn’t have the money really to pay for her to have some help. And we were trying to figure out, do we go through the school system because we’re eligible to get help in that. And we ended up having some family help us to pay, to get on a coach, what she needed. And as she has grown, I mean, she is brilliant. And I mean, she knocked it out of the park, on her ACT. You’d never know that she had struggled and worked so hard all those years to learn skills, to compensate. Her and I having a conversation when she was in high school of what if I didn’t have all of that.

Karen (13:10):  Right.

Karin: What if you guys couldn’t have found the money to send me to somebody that could help tutor me? And so, I think it’s easy for us that have the resources, even when it feels like it’s a stretch and how are we going to make it work? It’s such a different world. And I think that’s where we have to understand that inequity and care enough for somebody else’s child, as we care for our own.

Karen (13:40):  Right.

Karin (13:41): So Karen talked to us obviously you’re passionate about literacy. You taught in the grades where those, those beginning years of learning, how to read, maybe help explain why literacy is such a key to us being able to overcome some of the systemic problems that have existed from generations of inequity.

Karen (14:08): You can’t do anything if you can’t read. I always used to tell my kid. I said, if you can’t, there’s nothing worse in life. And this was just from my own experience and raising my voice. There’s nothing worse in life than being stuck. And if you can’t read, you’re stuck, you’re you have to take whatever’s available out there. And one of my students always want it to help Ms. Williams, our amazing custodian that we had at Keystone and Frasier and Ms. Williams would get mad at her for wanting to help her clean the restrooms or the hallways or whatever it may be. And I finally sat down with her and I said, do you understand why Ms. Williams is telling you that. Ms. Williams doesn’t want you taking out of the classroom out of your learning opportunities. She wants you to have a job better than cleaning up after, you know, all of us in the school building all day.

So, literacy is foundational and from K to two, and has an opportunity for pre-K, which is a whole another story, universal pre-K, and making sure children, all children have access to those early learning opportunities because so much happens from birth to the age of three that can then impact a child’s ability to learn once they get into kindergarten. But the K two years are referred to as the years where they are learning to read and all of those foundational skills. And I always equate it to building a house. When you build a house, the first thing that you worry about, the first thing that a builder is concerned with is building a very solid foundation before any of those two by fours go up or any of the pipes go in and things like that. Because if that foundation isn’t solid and secure, then the house is probably over time going to crumble.

And so in kindergarten to second grade, children are learning all of those foundational skills, whether it’s being able to recognize a letter, and then what sounds those letters make, and then putting those sounds together to make words, and then putting those words in sentences and then comprehending what those words in that sentence mean all the way up to crafting their own paragraph and being able to explain what it is that they’ve written into sequence properly and everything like that. The scariest statistic, Karin, is that for children in fourth grade, if they are not reading on grade level, by the time they leave the fourth grade, two thirds of those children will likely end up on welfare or in prison. So, it’s this downward slope. And so that’s why, it’s great for different organizations to be supporting children in high school.

I applaud that, but if we really want to make a difference, we’ve got to really invest in K2 and make sure that those foundational skills are really secure because once they get to third grade, and this was my own experience as an educator, I was teaching first grade and second grade for most of my career. And I always used to tell parents when I was talking to them about, you know, I don’t quite think your, kiddo is ready to go on to the next grade. We’ve got to really make sure that their skills, their foundational skills are really secure because once they get to third grade, it was a leap. Well, I went from first grade loop with some children to second and then loop with some children from second to third. And as an educator, when I got to third grade, I was like, whoa, I wasn’t lying about this. It was a huge leap for me as an educator to transition from these types of foundational skills that I was focused on to now getting more into this third-grade range where the children are really having to read to learn. So, if they can’t read by the time, they get to third grade, that’s where that fourth-grade statistic comes in. And then for organizations that want to support children in high school, the children that really need the support.

They’re not even there anymore, they’ve dropped out. And so, then you look at it from an economic standpoint and impact, you look at some of the statistics that are out there that I believe it was in 2010. There were, they calculated that over 17,200 children had dropped out of high school. But if you took just a thousand of those kids and had them graduate the impact of Memphis economy to our regional economy, the numbers were huge. They were very significant because they’re getting a job. They’re buying cars, they’re renting apartments, buying houses, going out for movies, whatever it may be. There’s money that’s coming back into the economy. It also impacts crime, 75 percent of crimes. And this is a national statistic are committed by high school dropouts. So, it’s, you know, literacy is not just a benefit for the child.

It’s a benefit for the child, their family, for their future family. And for us as community members, it benefits all of us. And so, it’s just critical that these foundational years that teachers, students and their families are supported to be able to address needs like what Annika face. You know, if there are some learning disabilities out there to be able to identify those early so that we can address them and help a child become the most successful learner and get them to the first base. And the first base is graduating high school, you know, that’s the first thing we’ve got to help children accomplish to be able to at least have basic employment.

Karin (19:33):  Karen, this is so eye opening, I think to many people that have not really, walked in this space and to know that all of us need to help one another and make sure that there’s no child that deserves a less than education.

Karen (19:53)  Absolutely.

Karin (19:54): So I’d love what you’re doing as an organization. I would love to really pick this conversation back up and have you share as our city partner for race, for reconciliation for our first event in Memphis, what ARISE2Read is doing and how it has been so successful. So that other people that are interested across the country, I know a raised read already, impacting a way outside the city of Memphis, but hopefully people will join us for that second podcast, but maybe to wrap this one up right now, Karen, if you are listening to this podcast, and maybe there’s a part of you that identifies with, you know, I want to be on the proactive side of things. That’s the beauty of what you’re doing is literacy is the one city partnership we have of the three that really is trying to be proactive instead of reactive.

Karen (20:53):  Right.

Karin (20:54) And so for somebody who’s like, I want to make a difference and help someone have a different path. What would you say would be if they’re not near and ARISE2Read, what are some ways that as a teacher, you would say, this is what I wish? I wish there were some people, and here’s how they can actually be an individual and make a difference in their community. What would you say?

Karen (21:17):  It’s somewhat of an easy answer. I remember when I was at Keystone, we had an adopter when way back when we were in Memphis city schools and every now and then maybe twice a year, my principal would buzz me and say, somebody is here from this organization. If you’ve got anything they can do? Well as a teacher, I’m standing there teaching 27 children and it’s great to have a volunteer come in, but it ends up being a very quick, look, so-and-so had trouble completing this assignment if you could sit down or, so-and-so really struggling with reading. Maybe you could read this to them. That’s all well and good, but it’s really not effective. And so, for really to be effective, people need to seek out opportunities on a consistent basis. Because it’s all for me as a teacher for our volunteers, the most powerful part about ARISE2Read is the relationship building that occurs between our volunteers and the children.

So, you don’t have to have an ARISE2Read, to be able to make that kind of impact. You can go and find a school that needs. That’s where the children need the support. Sometimes a lot of people say, well, I live in the suburbs. I want to help in the suburbs. And we do have schools that we help in the suburbs, but that’s not where the really high need is. The high need is in the inner cities and the communities where there’s a greater amount of poverty. Those are the children that need a lot more support. And so I would encourage people to seek out opportunities, whether it’s calling a principal or calling up the community liaison at a school district and find out how they can get involved and not just a pop in, you know, whenever the schedule allows, but to really find a consistent way to be a presence in a child’s life, whether it’s helping them with math or reading. But just being there to just provide that support. There are tremendous opportunities out there for volunteers to get involved in their schools. And it’s just a matter of picking up that phone call, or picking up that phone and making that call to a community liaison with a district or a principal and just getting the ball started from there. You don’t have to have an ARISE2Read organization to do that.

Karin (23:32): Some of the most effective things that we ever did as parents, were to involve our children in ways that we were reaching out to people in the community and opening up our children’s eyes to see, wow, not everybody has you know, their meals planned. And they’re… not everybody’s planning a vacation. I mean, the things that we take for granted.

Karen (23:56):  Absolutely.

Karin (23:57):  I love that idea. Sometimes we make it so complicated and we feel like we have to, you know, have an education degree or we have to be able to save the world to help anyone. You can help. One teacher, you can help one student in your neighborhood. You can go to a community center. You can, there’s so many ways…

Karen (24:17):  Absolutely.

Karin (24:18):  To just impact one life that does matter so.

Karen (24:21): And that’s where it starts. I mean, it starts with one, I mean, all of us have a story positive or negative about a teacher and maybe that teacher knows the impact that they made on your life. But I always tell our volunteers, you could be that positive voice in that child’s head that said, so-and-so believed in me and I’m going to keep going after my dream. And so, anybody can be that voice for a child and just building that relationship. And, you know, maybe it’s supporting something in a sports arena. You know, maybe it’s helping them shoot basketballs. I don’t know. It doesn’t have to just be literacy or math or basic skills like that, but it’s just making that investment in the life of a child. And that can make a difference, not just for that child, but again, for that family and for future family and for the community as a whole.

Karin (25:15): Well, Karen, thank you so much for joining me for this episode. I look forward to us doing a part two. If people are interested in finding out more about ARISE2Read, what’s the best place for them to go get information?

Karen (25:28):  Best place for them to go is our website. It’s And there’s a whole bunch of information on there. And you can hear from some of our students that we’ve been impacted. So, check it out.

Karin (25:43): Great. Well, thank you guys so much for joining us for this episode. For more information on Race for Reconciliation, you can go to and since we’re spelling it out, it’s F-O-R,, and we look forward to having you join us next time, take care.