The Family Learning Institute
Lessons in Survival
"There was no money for payroll," Amy Rolfes recalls.
In November 2008, Rolfes was a part-time reading consultant at the Family Learning Institute, a free reading program for students in local elementary schools. Then fallout from the Great Recession killed crucial funding sources--and the executive director and three other staffers left.
Determined to keep the clinic alive, Rolfes took over as executive director. "I'm committed 100 percent to this mission," she says. FLI was founded in 1999 to bridge the achievement gap between low-income students, especially African Americans, and their better-off peers.
"Between January and June I was in survival mode," Rolfes recalls. "My mom's a Depression child, and I can pinch a penny better than anybody." She negotiated a 50 percent rent cut with FLI's "very generous" landlord, Bob Ufer Jr. She turned the heat down so far that she sometimes worked with gloves and coat on. And she persuaded dozens of volunteer tutors--FLI calls them "coaches"--to take on tasks like answering the phone, assembling curriculum materials, and planning the big spelling bee fundraiser (held this year on May 3--see Events).
That got FLI through the school year. Then Rolfes held community meetings to put together a new, lower-budget model for the center. Still in place, it continues to rely heavily on volunteers, many of them retired teachers, to do tasks previously performed by paid staff. Development director Dan Rubenstein, like Rolfes and two other employees, works part-time. Rubenstein emails that while he's been able to bring back some of the lost funding from donors and foundations, "the major story is how FLI has become much leaner and more efficient."
The institute now serves about 125 students, most from Ann Arbor. "We aren't drop-in tutoring," emphasizes Rolfes, explaining that students come weekly to follow a structured reading curriculum and are regularly tested through a state reading assessment (there is also limited math tutoring). Most show gains--last year, almost 80 percent improved one or more grade levels in reading.
Most kids are referred by their classroom teachers; the off-campus location, says Rolfes, is more comfortable for those who might be embarrassed to be seen receiving special help at school.
FLI's budget today is about $144,000--one-third less than it was in 2008. But for practically the first time in its history, the nonprofit is not in debt--and has even started new initiatives, including an on-site program at Ypsilanti's Parkridge Community Center.
Rolfes is still pinching pennies. Since its students don't arrive until after school, FLI recently rented its space out during the day to the Children's Literacy Network--a nonprofit with a similar mission that works with preschoolers.
[Originally published in May, 2013.]