Indie Awards: Narrowing the achievement gap

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Finalist: Community Care

Family Learning Institute

Daniel Rubenstein | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Daniel Rubenstein | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

“Prisons use third-grade test scores to forecast the number of prison beds they’ll need in the future.”

That’s one way Daniel Rubenstein, development director at the Family Learning Institute, describes the importance of his organization’s mission.

FLI and its 100-plus volunteers work with economically disadvantaged students to improve their literacy and help eliminate the achievement gap in Washtenaw County. They all commit for an entire school year to meet with a single student once a week for an hour. “Our model is that kids need individualized attention,” Rubenstein says.

About 80 kids are in the core program. Almost all of them are in the second through fifth grades, and about 80 percent of them were referred to FLI by the school system. But FLI is only reaching a small percentage of those who need help; the organization estimates that 2,000 second-fifth graders in Washtenaw County are eligible for its programs based on income and test scores.

Rubenstein is a former purchasing manager at Ford. He heard a seminar at Ford in 2004 about community involvement and that eventually led him to volunteer at FLI. He ending up serving as a board member for four years, eventually resigning from Ford, and for the past four years has been FLI’s development director.

It’s been a rewarding career course correction. “That look on someone’s face when they get something they didn’t understand before, that’s rewarding,” Rubenstein said. “The kids are sweet, appreciative and they need the help. You have so much to give them, you don’t even realize it.”

It hasn’t always been easy for FLI to fulfill its mission. The organizaiton found itself $50,000 in debt and having “a near-death experience” during the recession of 2008, Rubenstein said. But the group got leaner and recovered, and today has money in the bank. And Rubenstein is quick to point out the support FLI gets from the community, such as a recent grant of $18,000 from Kiwanis to buy a van.

It’s worth it, he says with passion: “It’s an issue of social justice. I believe a liberal, capitalist society cannot be just unless you create an equality of opportunity.”

Kyle Poplin

Kyle Poplin is co-founder and editor of The Ann magazine.