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Reading seems straightforward. You get to kindergarten, trace your letters, learn your sounds, and that’s it, right? For many students, it’s not so simple. A staggering number of children face reading struggles, and literacy issues are rampant at the elementary school level. Think about this: only one in five third-to-fifth-grade students in Memphis are reading on grade level. One in five! If those students don’t catch up, they will continue to fall behind in opportunities both academic and, eventually, professional. The cycle of poverty and illiteracy will continue. 

Dr. Krista L. Johnson isn’t going to let that happen.

As the Executive Director and founder of ALLMemphis, Dr. Johnson works to address the literacy crisis in Memphis schools and to empower teachers with methods that build confidence and a growth mindset in students. With a clinical research background in dyslexia remediation, a doctorate from Northwestern University in Communication Sciences and Disorders, a Master of Arts in Audiology and Hearing Science, a Master of Arts in Learning Disabilities, and multiple certifications, she brings an academic perspective (and impressive pedigree!) to elementary reading remediation.  But, at the end of the day, if she can see one child evolve from a struggling student to someone who brings a, “Yes, I can!” attitude to life inside and outside the classroom, then she’s found success.

Meet our newest FACE of Memphis!

Dr. Krista L. Johnson, Executive Director and founder of ALLMemphis

Dr. Krista L. Johnson is Executive Director and founder of ALLMemphis. She’s also our newest FACE!

First, tell us about yourself. What is your background, and did you always know you’d find yourself in education?

No! I got my doctorate at Northwestern, and I fell in love with teaching at the university level. I always thought I’d be a professor. But I got my hands wet with younger students while researching whether there are brain stem differences in good readers versus poor readers. I saw the struggles and realized that this is a population where I could make a bigger impact.

Do you have a personal connection to reading struggles?

As a child I struggled with spelling, not necessarily with reading, but my parents described issues with sight words and sounding out words. I still struggle, and when I learned reading rules in a grad school class, it all clicked. I wondered, “Why didn’t someone tell me this when I was younger?” I realized how exciting it could be if this clicked for someone younger.

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Literacy issues affect four out of five students in grades 3-5 in Memphis. Do those students generally catch up, or is this something that follows them for life?

Good news! They can catch up — this isn’t a life sentence. But these statistics are a sign there’s more work to do. There’s not enough time in the school day, and they need to be immersed in literacy early. From preschool to 2nd grade, it’s so important to be taught by teachers focused on literacy. Unless a student has underlying conditions, there’s no reason students can’t be successful – it’s encouraging to know there’s opportunity! This work is transformative. That’s what fuels you on the hard days.

Krista posing with two educators

Dr. Johnson had her own struggles with sight words growing up, which makes her work today all the more personal.

Besides the literacy crisis in Memphis, what inspired you or what was the “I MUST do this” moment that pushed you to found ALLMemphis?

I love what I do! I get to bring my education and clinical experience together in a different approach to how we address literacy problems. When you see a child develop a growth mindset of, “Yes, I can!,” you realize that shines into all aspects of their lives – and you want to continue to see more and more of that! It makes you think, “What if we could transform student’s lives on a bigger scale?”

In my previous work, kids would go off to college and their parents would reach out to say, “You changed my child’s life!” But I was only touching a few lives, and those were students who had affluence and access to programs. I wanted to work with students who didn’t have the same access.

How did you find out about the methods of Orton-Gillingham, and why did you decide to bring this approach to ALLMemphis?

Orton-Gillingham (O-G) is the gold standard of reading instruction and remediation. Struggling students often need a multi-sensory approach to give the brain connections to map learning, and O-G engages all five senses. But it’s expensive. If someone wants to be the highest certified O-G practitioner, that’s a seven- to eight-year process, and it costs thousands of dollars. This is why tutoring is often more selective to affluent communities – it takes money to hire someone with that level of expertise. Plus, the program has to be prescriptive and customized to each student to assess where they’re struggling and develop a lesson plan. It’s difficult for a classroom to provide that level of one-on-one attention.

How is the O-G method designed to empower teachers, and is it making an even bigger impact now?

Teachers are superheroes. The expectations put on them daily is mind-blowing. We know when an organization like ALLMemphis comes in that it can sometimes feel like more expectations, but we tell teachers we’re a flashlight, not a hammer. We want to illuminate what’s going well and highlight what could make a larger impact, not to bring down the hammer and tell them what they’re doing wrong. We want to help take the mystery out of teaching reading, and we hear teachers say, “My students made strides that we’ve never seen before!” That increases teacher confidence, and this confidence wears off on students.

With students in and out of virtual schooling, have you seen a measurable impact on reading comprehension?

Before the pandemic, numbers weren’t good. Almost two years into the pandemic, numbers have dropped 6% – it’s stunning and tragic. It’s put more urgency into the work that we do. We are working with a population of students who have historically been excluded, and now there are even more hurdles in closing that gap. Shelby County is taking a rapid response approach, and it’s giving us more opportunity to partner with schools and bring our services to teachers and students.

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ALLMemphis educators looking at a children's book together

“Last year, ALLMepmhis hired a local illustrator and author to write grade level books that incorporate the skills they’ve learned over the year, while tapping into larger themes of how kids can be cause-minded and influential at a young age,” Krista shares. “For example, the second grade book is about a second-grade detective who helps solve the problem of getting food into food deserts in a more sustainable way. We’re hoping to have these in a local bookstore, Novel, in the next few months.”

Is there one book you always recommend to students?

Magic Tree House books are great for students ready to read chapter books, and kids absolutely love the Bunnicula series.

What are you reading right now?

I do a lot of reading with my kindergarten daughter who is learning to read, and I’ve always enjoyed YA fantasy, like the Fablehaven books.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

One of my colleagues in Chicago told me, “Don’t ever expect to get lucky because luck is the intersection between preparation and opportunity. Go out and manifest what you want.”

Beyond faith, family, or friends, what are three things you can’t live without?

Wine, chocolate, and travel. Knock on wood, we’re going as a family to Turks and Caicos this year, and my boyfriend and I are taking a motorcycle trip to Sturgis!

Thank you, Krista! All photography courtesy of ALLMemphis.

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