TU Alum Justin Harlan discusses his work in Reading Partners and other teaching programs.
Executive Director of Reading Partners and TU alum Justin Harlan exudes passion when he talks about his work. Originally from Kansas City, Harlan attended TU for his bachelor’s degree from 2004 to 2009. Involved in nonprofit work since graduating from TU, one experience in particular changed his view of the world and solidified his interest in nonprofits. The summer before his senior year of college, Harlan did humanitarian work in the middle of Jamaica. At the end of the summer he was invited to the house of a kid named Jason who he had mentored all break.
He said, “I’ll never forget sitting down with his parents in a house that was no bigger than this little area.” He gestured to the small area in Cirque coffee about half the size of the average student’s dorm room. “His parents told me they were being forced to choose which one of their five kids they were going to send to college.
“I remember feeling in that moment that nobody should be forced to make that choice, choosing which of their kids to put on a different life path,” Harlan said.
Harlan returned to the US with a passion for making a difference in children’s lives through education. His passion led him to work for Teach for America.
“TFA recruits, selects and trains people from all sorts of backgrounds to be a teacher in low-income areas, filling a really urgent need for teachers,” Harlan said. “All the schools they place them are Title I schools, so the majority of kids are on free reduced lunch.”
Harlan worked for Teach for America for seven years, where he “had the opportunity to wear a lot of different hats.”
“It was kind of a lucky experience because I was new as a professional and the region was very new too. I was able to grow up alongside the region. As TFA grew, I had the opportunity of taking more on,” he said.
This experience allowed Harlan to find what he enjoyed doing the most. He advised college students to find a job they love, saying, “I think having the opportunity in my first couple of years to try a lot of different things out helped me figure out what I liked doing and what I did best.” Harlan encouraged students to try lots of different things before settling on one. He continued, “Entry-level roles are really great for trying a ton of different roles and figuring out what you like best from that.”
The former executive director of Reading Partners recommended him for his current job.
“Our mission is to help children become lifelong readers by empowering communities to provide individualized instruction with measurable results,” Harlan said. “The mission of Reading Partners really is to catch kids up in reading by the end of third grade because a student who is not on grade level by the end of third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school than their peers.”
At the age of eight or nine a student’s opportunities are being opened up as they shift in school from learning to read to reading to learn. Reading becomes the foundation of everything they learn in school, Harlan said.
Reading Partners in Tulsa is growing and having an impact.
“We’ll have 1700 volunteers in Tulsa this year,” Harlan said with pride, “which is pretty amazing when you consider there are 14 regions with reading partners and Tulsa is the biggest despite being one of the smallest cities. Tulsa has embraced the program and really rallied behind kids here.”
Reading Partners is effective because it uses individualized instruction that volunteers are able to provide.
“Reading Partners meets every kid where they are. They figure out the skills they need and work with them to bring them up to skill level,” Harlan said.
Reading Partners has 26 centers in 23 schools in Tulsa. TU is one of Reading Partners’ biggest volunteer providers with over 100 students consistently participating.
Harlan encourages other TU students to join their classmates in volunteering.
“It’s not too late to sign up. It’s really as easy as going to a one-hour. training. If you can read at a third-grade level, you can be a reading partner.” Harlan said with a smile, “I’m sure college students can find an hour in their busy schedules to come and help us out.”