The College of Charleston is an integral part of the unique blend that makes living and working in Charleston and the Lowcountry so special. We are unquestionably among our city’s most important economic forces, and our campus makes significant contributions to the cultural and social health of our surrounding communities on a daily basis.

This duty is reinforced by our Strategic Plan, which emphasizes the College’s commitment to nurturing and supporting the assets of Charleston and the Lowcountry. But many of the College’s efforts to help improve the quality of life for all of our citizens don’t receive the public attention they deserve.

One example is a highly successful literacy initiative in local public schools that the College began this academic year and intends to continue as an annual service-learning project for our students. As an academic institution that is one of the largest producers of teachers in South Carolina, the College has an obligation to help combat and bring attention to the illiteracy problem that exists in our community and throughout our state.

One in seven adults in South Carolina lacks basic literacy skills, meaning these adults can’t read a newspaper or a prescription label, read to their children or help them with their homework. And children whose parents have low literacy skills are far more likely to have poor reading and writing skills themselves and are at tremendous risk of falling behind early in their school years.

Last semester, in partnership with the Charleston County School District, the College launched the Literacy Outreach Initiative. More than 300 of our students took part in various educational outreach efforts as part of the initiative. In its inaugural semester, the program reached more than 4,000 elementary, middle and high school students in 27 public schools across Charleston County.

The initiative paired College students with teachers throughout the school district to implement an original classroom curriculum based on The New York Times–best-selling book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The book, which was the 2010 selection for the College’s common reading program (The College Reads!), details Mortenson’s humanitarian campaign to build schools in impoverished areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It explores four major themes: language, culture, geography and humanitarianism.

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea

When the literacy initiative was first being planned in early 2010, it was envisioned as a community service project in which first-year students in our Honors College would read to children in a few downtown Charleston elementary schools. But Trisha Folds-Bennett, initiative director and associate dean of the Honors College, and other organizers recognized that the program had the potential to make a much bigger impact not just across campus, but across the entire school district.

The initiative soon took on a life of its own as word spread among the College’s faculty and among teachers throughout Charleston County. Several of our faculty signed on to integrate the initiative into their course curricula. The Charleston County School District, which around the same time the initiative was being planned had elevated literacy to one of its highest priorities, embraced the initiative and encouraged its administrators and teachers to take part.

Among the many contributions that were made from all across our campus was the development of the literacy initiative’s curricula by faculty in the School of Education, Health, and Human Performance. Margaret Hagood ’92, associate professor of teacher education, designed an elementary school curriculum around the picture book version of Three Cups of Tea titled Listen to the Wind. Nicola Williams, assistant professor of teacher education, wrote a curriculum for middle and high school students to accompany the young reader version of Three Cups of Tea.

By the time the initiative launched on October 4 for its seven-week run, some 327 students from the College had signed up to participate in some way. The majority of students who participated in the initiative were freshmen representing a variety of academic majors. Many of them were not education majors and never imagined that while in college they would have the opportunity to help teach schoolchildren and encourage their interest in books and reading.

Several participating students said they were surprised by the extent of the needs and challenges that exist in Charleston County schools, where nearly 15 percent of public high school students read at or below a fourth-grade level.

Folds-Bennett believes the initiative resonated with our students because it tapped into some of their passions, including reading, community service and working with children. “They want to give of their time, but they don’t want it to be wasted,” she said. “They want to do something real, something with impact.”

That impact could be seen on the smiling faces of schoolchildren who, as part of the initiative, received new copies of the picture book or young reader versions of Three Cups of Tea. For many of the children, this marked the first time they were able to write their names in a book and take it home as their own. The purchase of the 4,200 books was made possible through a fundraising drive led by Greg Pressley and an extremely generous challenge gift of $25,000 given by Sean Moore, owner of the Charleston-area Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchise.

One fifth-grade teacher in Charleston whose class participated in the initiative said that every time her students were given free time during the day, they reached into their desks and pulled out their personal copies of the book.

The initiative’s culminating event was Greg Mortenson’s visit to our campus on November 11. Although Mortenson’s appearance had been arranged years earlier through The College Reads! program, the timing of his visit presented an ideal opportunity to conclude the first year of the literacy initiative in a spectacular fashion. Among the more than 5,000 people who packed the Carolina First Arena for his talk were nearly 500 schoolchildren and teachers who had participated in the literacy initiative. A smaller group of schoolchildren and teachers also had the opportunity to participate in a private meeting with Mortenson prior to his public talk.

Author and Nobel Prize nominee Greg Mortenson in the College's Carolina First Arena

I’m thrilled that the literacy initiative is off to such a strong start, and I want to thank all of the faculty, staff, students and volunteers who helped to make it a huge success.

As the College continues to emphasize its role as an advocate for vital community assets such as our public K-12 school system, we look forward to the literacy initiative becoming one of our signature service-learning projects in the years ahead.