The Preface Project

12 mins read

The Preface Project—an “aha” moment! A simple, yet brilliant expansion of the mentor teaching model that has this speech-language pathologist and learning specialist excited and thoroughly impressed! What was J.T. Wu’s brilliant idea? Pairing young ESL readers with trained high school mentors who fluently speak the students’ first language, whatever that language may be—Italian, Mandarin, Hindi, Korean, Spanish, and more.  

Most elementary schools have an ESL program, but as those in the field know, it often consists of one overworked ESL teacher with a large caseload of students who speak multiple languages. Preface Project to the rescue! Their staff trains bilingual high school “Ambassadors” and sends them into elementary schools, not just to read to students, but to provide the necessary language interaction and support necessary for learning and reading development. 

Our brains are wired to learn languages most efficiently in the early years. At birth, babies can recognize their mother’s voice and already have a sense of the prosody and rhythm of the language(s) of their home environment. But, by one year of age, the ability to distinguish the unique features of all languages begins to fade. It is essential that educators understand that the early years are the critical language learning years. 

Language learning and learning to read are inextricably intertwined. From preschool to third grade, students are learning to read. After that, students are expected to read to learn. To be able to take English-speaking students who are functionally illiterate and, within one year, raise their reading skills to grade level and above is an enormous achievement—but to achieve this level of progress with students for whom English is a second language as the Preface Project has done—that’s truly extraordinary. In addition, inspired by their Preface Project experience, many of the high school “Ambassadors” have gone on to pursue careers in education and social work. America, take notice!

We live in the 21st century, a globally connected world. High school and college graduates who are multilingual have a significant employment advantage over those who can only speak English. Bilingualism is a gift, not a disability. The American education system needs to recognize this now, before the United States is left behind as the modern world zooms on!

Foreword by Elisa Goldklang. Elisa is DemCast’s Georgia Captain, and a speech-language pathologist and learning specialist. She lives in Marietta, Georgia.

In late April, a panel of judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a landmark ruling in the case of Gary B. v. Whitmer, concluding that, under the United States Constitution, students “have a fundamental right to a basic minimum education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy.”

Yet, in survey after national survey, the US Department of Education has consistently found that only 1/3 of elementary school kids in America are reading English at a proficient level. To make matters worse, studies have shown that students who aren’t reading proficiently by the third grade understandably struggle in school down the line, correlating with higher drop-out rates and reinforcing systemic barriers to long-term success.

Plus, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, children all across our nation are plunging into a real-time national experiment in remote learning—an additional challenge for kids who may already be struggling with access to educational support. 

None of this is an indictment of our nation’s hard-working educators, parents, or caregivers—all of whom make enormous personal sacrifices to provide for their kids in times of crisis. On the contrary, these statistics highlight the compounding systemic disadvantages faced by the over 716,000 children in America who simply don’t speak English fluently in the home—if they speak it at all.

There’s no doubt that nurturing and preserving a child’s multilingualism is an enormous asset, especially later in life. But with the vast majority of early education still taught exclusively in English, the fact remains that, at a time when the world is more interconnected than ever, a staggering number of America’s children are at immediate risk of falling through preventable cracks in the system, simply because they don’t know how to read.

These issues are personal to me.

As a proud Georgia native and the son of immigrants (who themselves were scholarship graduates of the University of Mississippi), I recognize just how blessed I am to have grown up in a home where English was the primary language and, importantly, educational supports were strong. Yet, in today’s America, these kinds of support systems are increasingly rare in our nation’s most vulnerable communities—especially if caregivers often have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

That’s why, after graduating from Princeton University and leading public-private partnership initiatives all across America, I teamed up with a group of passionate educators, community leaders, and young professionals to form Preface—an innovative 501(c)(3) nonprofit with one simple mission: ensuring that every child has the educational foundations and English skills necessary to achieve their own American Dreams.

Based in my home community of Gwinnett County, Georgia—now one of the most diverse, fastest growing, and most populous counties in the nation—our model works alongside teachers to train a community’s own bilingual high school students in early educational best practices. Then, we send our volunteer “Ambassadors” directly into partner elementary school  classrooms (either in person or virtually, depending on the community’s needs) to assist teachers with literacy sessions in  smaller group settings.

Our thesis isn’t rocket science. Mentorship and relational engagement are proven concepts, so our innovations simply take things a step further by leveraging a community’s pre-existing language skills to help bridge comprehension gaps in the classroom for students that need it most.

With the Preface model, we help young children acclimate to the English language by building on classroom concepts in real time. We also help our teachers enhance their classroom experiences by providing an extra pair of multilingual hands at no cost! Plus, our interventional methods are clinically informed by national best practices, and every partnership is tailored to the specific needs and nuances of a local community.

Our results to date have been overwhelmingly promising! For example, in the linguistic melting pot that is Lilburn, Georgia, first and second graders in our Preface pilot program went from being functionally illiterate to being on track to read at or above grade level by the end of the year. Additionally, many of our “Ambassadors” have been inspired to pursue future careers in social work and education, thanks to the hands-on service experience they gained through giving back and tangibly improving their own communities.

Of course, we realize that our model is just one piece of the puzzle. Education is a holistic process, especially in a global pandemic; and it will take all of us, working together, to keep the American Dream alive for future generations. 

Working alongside hard-working educators and forging stronger bonds within communities—that’s just part of being a good neighbor. And it’s at the heart of everything we do.

That’s why, when remote learning became the plan for school districts around the country, Preface was already proactively innovating ahead of the curve. Together with our technological partners, we created a first-of-its-kind Virtual Portal filled with stories, resources, and secure Google-powered mentorship spaces to keep the Preface model safe, remote, and viable for our Ambassadors across the country.

Educators have embraced our efforts, allowing us to expand our footprint by 500 percent—from just one pilot school here in Georgia to launching new partnerships in six states across the South! Best of all, we can now virtually connect Ambassadors with young students needing help all across the country, not just in their own backyards—and we do it all completely free of charge.

So, during a time when our country can seem more divided than ever, all of us here at Preface are excited to be pioneering an innovative solution for a cause that every American can get behind, regardless of ideology, religion, or political creed. We count among our advisors both committed conservatives and lifelong liberals—because childhood illiteracy couldn’t care less about political parties or voting demographics. Ultimately, every child should get to learn to read, because every child deserves a chance to pursue their dreams.

(L–R) Dr. Wandy Taylor, Preface Expert Advisor; Dr. Guerlene Merisme, Lilburn Elementary School Principal; Jonathan “JT” Wu, Preface Founder & Executive Director; Cindy Moffett, Berkmar High School Assistant Principal

How Can You Help Preface Project Fight for Childhood Literacy?

  • Share our story, mission, and model with others and learn more at our website.
  • Follow us on Facebook and Instagram.
  • Support us through Amazon Smile.
  • Donate now. Our current leadership team takes no salary and our model remains low-cost by partnering with local volunteers and community leaders, so every dollar you give has maximum impact.

Contact us to work on a program tailored to the literacy needs in your community. We have a robust multistate expansion plan in place and are seeking founding Preface partners!


DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

JT Wu is the founder of Preface Project. Wu grew up in Duluth, Georgia, to immigrant parents. He graduate from Princeton University, where he studied public policy, and has worked with Citigroup, the U.S. State Department, and Prospira PainCare. He serves on the board of the Alchemy Sky Foundation and the Board of Trustees of the Gwinnett County Public LIbrary.

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