Retooling Detroit: Volunteers are opening horizons through literacy


A couple of years ago, local attorney Sangeeta Shah was watching a documentary on the revival of Detroit, when a single statistic jumped out at her. 47%. That number is the rate of adult illiteracy in Detroit. Shah immediately grasped the implications of that number. To her, it meant that almost half the adults in the city of Detroit lacked the basic skill necessary for employment, the necessary skill to read the label on prescription medication, the necessary skill to open their horizons and transcend the disadvantages that might define their lives and the lives of their children.


She began to research, finding that 70 – 85% of people on welfare, in prison, classified as juvenile delinquents or struggling through life as unwed mothers were illiterate. She also found that the problem manifests very early, with elementary students who are failing to gain the skill “checking out” in school by 3rd, 4th or 5th grade.

“They don’t feel that they can fit into the school system so they check out as soon as they can. But they still have to survive, so they do whatever they have to for survival,” says Shah.

Teachers are struggling in Detroit Public Schools classrooms, where as many as two thirds of their students need reading assistance that a single teacher can’t provide and that the school districts don’t have the human resources to implement.

“Once that literacy door closes,” says Shah, “there are only so many options.”

What would it take to help?

Shah’s mother is a Montessori teacher, so it was easy to assembly a group of teachers to try to answer that question. As half a dozen long-time teachers distilled down their best practices to create an effective methodology, what they created was a phonics-based system that tutors can learn in one 90-minute training session.

Retooling Detroit got to work with K-3rd grade students in some of the lowest performing schools in the DPS system. The teachers identified the lowest performing students through testing and volunteer tutors worked with them for one or two 20 minute sessions each week.

“The results are astonishing,” says Shah. “Every single child has improved at least 50%. Many get to full grade proficiency.”

Currently, they have enough volunteers to work with 150 students. Their goal is to provide tutoring to all of the approximately 1,000 students needing assistance in the district’s six lowest performing schools.

“We know what we’re doing works,” says Shah.

The challenge now is scaling it to the need. Finding enough volunteers that can get to the schools during the work day was challenging. So, Retooling Detroit partnered with Tutor-mates, which has created a skype-based program of stories and reading games that volunteers can use to tutor students remotely.

Now, for $2,000 a year, an employer can sponsor a classroom and allow employees a half hour each week to tutor students over Skype.

For participating companies, Retooling Detroit provides one representative with a package of materials, and all they need to do is identify 10 volunteers, organize the training, and pair the volunteers with a student.

At Shah’s law firm, she says that the volunteers take a great deal of pride and joy in the kids’ achievements.

“Lawyers are some of the more jaded lot in our society, but I have no problem getting a group of 10 lawyers together to do this, says Shah. “I can’t put it into words, when you watch that child kind of awaken to the world they can explore through that book.”

“These children have the exact same capabilities, they just need a little more,” says Shah. “In many instances, parents, guardians are illiterate. There may be many compounding factors. In that instance, it’s all the more important. Very early on, they decide if they’re smart enough for school or they’re not. Once they recognize that they’re just as capable as anyone else and discover that joy of expanding their horizons through reading, we just need to make sure they don’t just check out when they’re 5 or 6 or 7.”

With a combination of in-person and Skype-based tutoring, Shah says that they can reach essentially all the children who need additional instruction.

“Most social issues require large sums of financial backing, may require structural modifications, policy changes. This isn’t one of those. There’s no transportation, no additional infrastructure, no cost. If an employer wants to sponsor through Tutor-mate – they pay that,” says Shah. “In the US of all countries, this is one we can tackle.”

The original teachers were mainly of Asian Indian background. In that culture, says Shah, “education is paramount. Asian families understand that education is the great equalizer – that you don’t cut corners on that. For those teachers and the volunteers from that community. It seemed like the perfect thing to give back to that community.”

Shah is Hindu, but over time, their outreach expanded into many faith communities, training synagogue and church members and reaching out into the Sikh and Muslim communities. And bringing members of different faiths together began to generate a secondary benefit to the program.

“The shared experience of volunteering for a common purpose helps to fundamentally break down stereo-types and lack of interaction. Indirectly, through working together, you’d break down these misperceptions and bring the community together in a way that becomes incredibly important in today’s environment,” says Shah. “We’re very purposefully trying to draw from different ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, religions.”

Retooling Detroit will conduct a training in any group, organization or company that can assemble a group of at least several volunteers. The fall is a critical time and they are ramping up their outreach and training with the hopes of serving all the students who are in need.

For more information, or to volunteer, contact Sangeeta Shah at

Photo by By Zipig (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons