How GM’s big $1 million donation will improve the reading skills of 500 Detroit students

Big books used to intimidate Makayla Link. So did big words and big paragraphs. 

But that was in ninth grade, when she was reading at the seventh-grade level. Today, as a senior, she has caught up — a feat she credits to Beyond Basics, a literacy program that on Monday got a big boost in funding.

General Motors has donated $1 million to the program, which provides intense tutoring to high school students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. 

It’s the largest single donation to the literacy effort. And it brings Beyond Basics to halfway toward its goal of raising $6 million this year. Overall, it helps meet a three-year, $33 million fundraising campaign goal. 

The new cash comes during a time of crisis for the district and many other schools in the state and nation that are struggling with data showing large percentages of students aren’t reading well. In the district, just 28.5% of the students last year met college readiness standards in reading and writing. That compares with 55.4% statewide.

“This is a silent epidemic in America,” Pamela Good, president of Beyond Basics, said during a news conference Monday morning at Mumford High School. “It is killing the futures of our children. It is not just Detroit. It is Michigan and it’s across the nation.”

After benefitting from the program for more than a year at Mumford, Makayla found herself enjoying reading.

“It felt kind of weird, how I can read big books,” said Makayla, who is 17. “Big books used to scare me.”

For the Detroit district, the money is allowing 500 more students to benefit from the tutoring, up from 300. 

Beyond Basics has 50 tutors in schools across the district. The goal is to expand that number to 300 over the next three years.

Donating to improve literacy is something every business in the city should be able to support, said Mark Reuss, the president of General Motors.

“No student should have to struggle with basic reading and writing,” Reuss said.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the Beyond Basics program is a leader in the field of literacy and has shown strong results in getting students to grade-level reading. 

“They’re not just working with students for the sake of working with children. They’re actually moving the needle,” Vitti said.

Sophomore Deont’E Mays, 16, said his reading skills were “not really good” when he entered the program, which helped build his confidence and improve his reading. Now, he wants to pay it forward and help tutor younger students.

“It’s a really nice program.”