February 27, 2024
Reading Between the Lines

Photo: Lawyers for Literacy

Tampa attorney Christine L. Derr volunteers with Lawyers for Literacy, a non-profit that helps students in the Tampa Bay region improve their reading skills. The program has provided tutoring to 1,600 students since 2003.

Economic Backbone: Law

Reading Between the Lines

Lawyers for Literacy sees a lot of book value in teaching kids to read.

Art Levy | 7/26/2023

Twenty years ago, St. Petersburg criminal defense attorney Lucas Fleming began noticing that many of his teenaged clients had something in common: They could barely read.

“I felt really bad going over a plea form with them in court,” Fleming says. “How can you know what your rights are if you can’t read the form?”

Fleming did a little research and found a statistic from a national literacy advocacy group indicating that 85% of juvenile criminal offenders have difficulty reading. He thought to himself: “What can I do?”

Shortly after, Fleming founded Lawyers for Literacy, a public-supported non-profit that places attorneys, judges and other volunteers in public schools to tutor third-graders in reading.

To qualify for the one-on-one tutoring, students must read below their grade level and be deemed by their school as being in danger of not being promoted.

Since 2003, the program has tutored more than 1,600 students in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties — and helped 98% of them pass a state exam that enabled them to move on to the fourth grade.

The volunteers meet with the students once a week over a 12-week period, usually for 45 minutes during the school’s lunch period. The students read books with the tutors, practice punctuation and grammar, discuss and interpret stories and get quizzed on vocabulary words.

Lawyers for Literacy, which operates on between $20,000 and $22,000 a year in grants and contributions, serves as many students as it has tutors, who go through a one-hour training program before they get paired with a child.

Before the pandemic, the group had about 170 volunteers working in 34 schools. The pandemic shut the program down for a couple of years, and now it’s back with 110 volunteers. Fleming wants to build the tutor base back to pre-pandemic levels — and hopefully attract more help.

“We could serve so many more kids,” says Lawyers for Literacy Founder Lucas Fleming.

Fleming, who has been a tutor since the program started in 2003, says the attention the kids get goes beyond academics. Over the years, he says the tutors have kindled long-lasting relationships with the students. One 18-year volunteer keeps tabs on all of her former students, for example, including some attending college.

“A lot of these kids don't have people at home, reading with them, supporting them, being a cheerleader,” Fleming says. “Just knowing they have somebody behind them goes a long way in building their self-esteem.”

Fleming says his Lawyers for Literacy experience has been rewarding for him, too. As a defense attorney, he says he enjoys helping families navigate tough situations, and he sees his volunteer work as a way to perhaps help the students avoid tough situations later.

“I’m not the kind of guy that has to feel like I’ve got to change the world,” he says. “But if we can curb illiteracy among juveniles, then maybe we can keep some of them out of the criminal justice system.”

Fleming’s involvement also falls in line with how he was raised. His father, Peter Fleming, is a retired priest and his mother, Marion L. Fleming, is a one-time circuit court judge.

“Our family dinners were all about supporting the community, finding what you’re going to do to make a difference in people’s lives, finding how to serve your community,” he says. “When you’re a kid, those kinds of conversations stick with you.”

Tags: Government/Politics & Law, Feature, Economic Backbone: Law

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