Vanderbilt’s Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center volunteers help literacy, math achievement grow at Ida B. Wells Elementary

Vanderbilt students, faculty and staff greeting students in front of Ida B. Wells Elementary.

What started out as a service project for the Association of Vanderbilt Black Faculty and Staff affinity group quickly turned into a strong community partnership between members of the Vanderbilt community and Ida B. Wells Elementary School in East Nashville. Throughout the 2022–23 school year, faculty, staff and students put in more than 400 service hours with the school. 

Principal Dexter O. Adams said of the Vanderbilt community efforts: “The things you do for Ida B. Wells are out of this world when it comes to impacting our students’ lives and their educational journey! This will, in turn, increase their probability and chances to be successful because they can acquire the tools necessary to compete globally.” 

In fall 2022, projects included a welcoming committee to cheer the elementary students on as they returned for the academic year, an AVBFS-hosted uniform drive, student volunteers shopping with students at their Scholastic Book Fair and Rosevelt Noble, outgoing director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, acting as “Principal for the Day.”  

Students also enjoyed a magic show put on by the Vanderbilt National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). 

“One of my main takeaways is the power of positive representation that Vanderbilt has provided us,” Dean of Instruction Angela Simpson said of the partnership with the BCC, which was recognized as Community Partner of the Year at Ida B. Wells’ Volunteers Appreciation Luncheon last spring. 

“Working in a school population that is predominantly African American, it is important for our children to be exposed to role models in all careers. It proves that they’re capable of doing anything and succeeding in life as well.” 

The elementary school was not the only organization to celebrate the AVBFS efforts. Their work won a Community Impact Award at the Vanderbilt University 2023 Fall Staff Assembly, and the NOBCChE won a Vanderbilt Award for Leadership Excellence for their magic show event.  

And the Vanderbilt community only increased their time spent at the school during the spring 2023 semester. 

In January 2023, they launched a Leading Through Reading initiative that included multiple programs. Thirty-five Black students, faculty and staff adopted classrooms (pre-kindergarten through second grade) and rotated reading to the students frequently. The school also collaborated with Peabody Library on donating children’s books to the classrooms.  

Additional programs included: 

  • A Black History Door Decoration Contest where nine faculty members judged the doors 
  • Students volunteering during Reading Across America Week 
  • A Vanderbilt table at Career Day, complete with Vanderbilt Athletics swag 
  • A Community Fair to showcase the school to the community 
  • A new student family lunch and a staff appreciation lunch. 

Vanderbilt volunteers can be proud that during the year of their partnership with Ida B. Wells Elementary School, the school increased its TN Ready literacy and math achievement levels. The school’s Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System level increased to a five, meaning there was significant evidence that the school’s students made more progress than the standard expectation. 

Vanderbilt volunteers are expanding their partnership with Ida B. Wells Elementary this academic year. In August, a group again attended the first day of school to be smiling and welcoming faces for the students, and there are two new initiatives planned: Sister 2 Sister, a mentor/lunch buddy program, involves roughly 80 Black women from Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt University Medical Center attending the school weekly, and a program called “I Am STEM” uses biographies, written at the fifth-grade level, of Vanderbilt faculty who work in STEM fields. The books were edited and donated by Peabody professors emeriti Ann Neely and David Weintraub. 

The group is also planning a fundraiser for the Scholastic Book Fair so every student will have the opportunity to buy a book.