In February 1999, several members of CAST met to plan a reading conference, but decided a reading conference was not enough. They left with agreement to create a more sustained, community-based, long-term strategy to help students close the achievement gap.
Doris Sperling, a retired teacher and evaluation expert, and Lefiest Galimore, a community organizer, developed the concept for and established FLI in late 1999. The program design incorporated recommendations from focus groups representing area colleges and universities, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and diverse members of the community. Recommendations included targeting students in grades 3 through 8, involving students, parents, teachers, and tutors, and providing a curriculum that develops reading, writing, thinking, and contextual interpretation skills.
FLI was begun with grants from Washtenaw County and the city of Ann Arbor, and a generous start-up donation from a local entrepreneur.
The essence of FLI's program is to have professional teachers test students on intake, develop individualized lesson plans that target their weaknesses, train volunteer "coaches," pair each student with a coach in a long-term, continuous relationship, and conduct regular follow-up testing to gauge progress and refine lesson plans as needed. Coaching is done in private rooms away from school to maintain anonymity, minimize embarrassment, and remove students from any negative associations they may have with school. FLI has demonstrated consistent success, regularly raising most students' reading levels by one, two, or three grades within one year -- students who, without intervention, would be expected to fall farther behind.