October 5, 2023

Literacy First Alum Can Now Get Compensated for Successfully Referring Tutors!

If you are a tutor alum, you may be eligible for compensation if you successfully refer someone to serve as an AmeriCorps member through Literacy First. Referrals must apply through your personal link through Service Year and accept an offer for either the 2023-2024 or 2024-2025 school year by December 31, 2023. 

How to refer a tutor through Service Year:

  1. Log in or create an account on

  2. Complete your Alum Profile to confirm your service year info with Literacy First.

  3. Click the “Refer Your Friends” button, then “Refer a Listing”.

  4. Type “Literacy First” in the search bar to find our listings. Once you open a listing, click on “Refer a Friend” to get your personalized referral link! OR visit the direct links below and look for the Refer a Friend button at the top of the page to generate your referral link:

Note that in order to be eligible for compensation, applicants must apply directly through your personalized referral link. This incentive program is offered by Service Year and is limited to a maximum of $500 for two referrals ($250 each) who successfully enroll as members. Compensation is provided by Service Year, not Literacy First. 

October 13, 2022

2022 Literacy Launch and Swearing In Ceremony

Last Thursday, we gathered with members of the Austin community at our 2022 Literacy Launch and Swearing In Ceremony to celebrate the official swearing in of more than 50 Literacy First AmeriCorps tutors! Our expert panel reflected on the importance of teaching our students to read and our guest speaker, author e .E. Charlton-Trujillo, encouraged us to embrace our inner child with their inspiring words and read-aloud of Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules!

We want to thank our panelists, Dr. Annette Tielle , Dr. Alexis Osorio Juusola, Dr. David Kauffman and our moderator, Literacy First Advisory Board Chair, Marisol Foster for their energizing insights into high-impact tutoring, the power of the multilingual brain, and the many ways we can be advocates for our “at-promise” students.

Thank you to our Advisory Board members, Sheena Moore and Juan Tornoe, who led our tutors in the official AmeriCorps Pledge in both English and Spanish. 

Thank you to Phil Swann  for perfectly capturing the morning with such beautiful photos. A full album is available here.

And finally, thank you to all of our guests – from our partner districts, supporters, friends, colleagues and former tutors – for making this event such a success! We are deeply grateful for your attendance, words of support, and commitment to bright futures ahead.

September 27, 2022

Literacy First Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, books can be a wonderful resource for both embracing your Hispanic/Latinx/Latine heritage or seeking to learn about a culture different from your own. Check out this link for a book list that features Hispanic/Latinx authors, illustrators, and stories at various reading levels.

September 14, 2022

2021-2022 Literacy First Impact Report

For Literacy First, 2021-2022 was a year filled with challenge and change. Thanks to the efforts of our staff, tutors, students, partners, and supporters, challenge and change were transformed into opportunity, and opportunity became tremendous impact. Join us in taking a moment to reflect upon, learn from, and celebrate that impact in the 2021-2022 Literacy First Impact Report.

July 12, 2022

White House Announces National Partnership for Student Success

The Biden-Harris Administration recently announced the National Partnership for Student Success (NPSS), a partnership between AmeriCorps and the U.S. Department of Education that will help communities nationwide connect students with evidence-based services to address learning time lost due to the pandemic. Literacy First is thrilled to see high-quality tutoring and the national service model recognized as proven pathways to learning recovery, and proud to be a part of expanding these critical supports to reach more students. Read more about the NPSS here.

June 18, 2022

Juneteenth & Pride Events in Austin

Check out the list of Juneteenth and Pride Month celebrations happening in Austin and surrounding areas on June 18, 2022. Each of these events mentions specific activities geared toward children and families.


Millennium Entertainment Youth Complex – FREEDOM FEST

Leander Old Town – Juneteenth Jubilee

Adam Orgain Park Hutto – Juneteenth Festival

Huston-Tillotson University – Soul Food Truck Fest

Chicon St & Rosewood Park – Central Texas Juneteenth Parade & Celebration

The Carver Museum & Cultural Center – Stay Black & Live – Community Kickback

Pride Month

Pflugerville Public Library – Family Pride Celebration 

East Communities YMCA – ‘Swim with Pride’ Pool Party



June 1, 2022

Literacy First Celebrates Pride Month

While children learn to read, books help inform their worldview. As Pride Month 2022 kicks off, the children’s books below feature LGBTQ+ people and stories that can help create a rich, diverse, healthy worldview – whether that means giving children a chance to see their own selves and families reflected, or helping grow allies.

May 25, 2022

Gun Violence in America

Literacy First is an organization made up of parents, grandparents, educators, friends, humans. And each one of us is beyond devastated by the senseless violence we’ve seen in Uvalde, Laguna Woods, Buffalo, and elsewhere in this nation. Nothing we can say will bring peace to the victims of those tragedies or their loved ones. Over the next few days, we’ll be focusing on supporting our tutors and students in their final week of the school year.

May 10, 2022

Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, books can be a wonderful resource for both embracing your AAPI heritage or seeking to learn or teach about a culture different from your own. Below are lists of books for various reading levels that feature AAPI authors, illustrators, and stories.





April 17, 2022

Literacy First Featured on Inside Austin

Hear former Literacy First Director Mary Ellen Isaacs discuss the program in an episode of Audacy’s Inside Austin podcast. Listen here.

April 8, 2022

Claire Hagen Alvarado, Ed.L.D. Announced as Director of Literacy First

We are thrilled to formally introduce Dr. Claire Hagen Alvarado as Director of Literacy First.

Claire brings two decades of experience and leadership in the Texas education and literacy space to the role, as well as a passion for growing multilingual readers. Prior to joining Literacy First, Claire served as Chief of Program and Strategy for education consulting firm designEDengagement, PBC. She earned her Education Leadership Doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with her doctoral residency at the Texas Education Agency as the Statewide Early Childhood Fellow. Earlier in her career, Claire served as the Language Arts Supervisor for the Austin Independent School District and also taught reading to multilingual learners at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.  

March 24, 2022

Watkins Family Pledges $2 Million to Literacy First

Determined to support expansion of Literacy First and reach more students, longtime supporters Helen and Sandy Watkins and family have pledged $2 million over five years in support of the program.

Read more about the Watkins family’s decade-plus of involvement with Literacy First and their resolute belief in bright futures ahead.


March 10, 2022

Virtual Retirement Celebration Honoring Mary Ellen Isaacs

Join a virtual retirement celebration honoring retiring Literacy First Director Dr. Mary Ellen Isaacs on March 29, 2022 at 3PM CST. Register today and sign the digital guestbook here

December 2021

Literacy First Seeks Director

Literacy First is seeking a Director to drive the evolution and strategy of the organization toward Bright Futures Ahead. The Director role offers the opportunity to lead Literacy First in an exciting time of continued innovation and expansion, with the guiding mission of ensuring all children have the support they need to read well by third grade.

More details and instructions to apply can be found here.

December 2021

Literacy First Chosen as Recipient of Texas Mutual Workforce Development Grant

Literacy First is honored to have been chosen as a grant recipient of Texas Mutual Insurance Company for our initiatives in workforce development.

We are excited to continue expanding the significant professional and career development opportunities offered to our early literacy tutors, as well as to engage more adults from the communities in which we serve as tutors, therefore building the capacity of districts and communities long term.

For more information on the statewide grant initiative, including a full list of grant recipients, please visit the Texas Mutual site.

November 2021

Literacy First Hiring Development Associate

Literacy First is hiring a Development Associate to assist the Literacy First Development/Communications team in raising sustaining funds and support for the program as we expand our impact in Central Texas. Are you or someone you know right for the role? Find job details, benefits, and instructions to apply at

Read More

October 2021

2020-2021 Literacy First Impact Report

The 2020-2021 Literacy First Impact Report offers a moment to reflect on, learn from, and celebrate our collective impact during a historically challenging school year. Read it here.

October 2021

Literacy First Aligned with Research Center's Keys for Effective Tutoring

In the 15th installment of its “10 Keys” series, The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk lists the top 10 research-backed policies and practices necessary for effective in-school tutoring. Literacy First is aligned with their recommendations, including these examples that serve as pillars of the Literacy First early literacy tutoring program:

#3 Use evidence-based instructional practices and high-quality materials to deliver explicit and systematic tutoring instruction.

#8 Ensure that tutors monitor student progress and provide information to school personnel so that adjustments can be made to better address students’ needs.

#9 Provide tutors with high-quality training to work effectively with students.

#10 Supervise and provide ongoing support to tutors as they learn to implement the instructional practices with fidelity.

September 2021

Literacy First Director Receives National Award for Service

Literacy First Director Dr. Mary Ellen Isaacs was recently named the recipient of America’s Service Commissions 2021 Outstanding Service Program Staff Award. The eighth annual ASC Innovation & Leadership Awards recognize outstanding individuals and organizations who demonstrate an unparalleled commitment to national service and volunteering at the local, state, and federal level.

A recording of the presentation of the award and Mary Ellen’s acceptance speech can be found here.

September 2021

New Report Released for Randomized Controlled Trial Study of Literacy First

In August 2019, we shared the results of the first-ever randomized controlled trial study of Literacy First. The American Institutes for Research continued their independent evaluation of the impact of the Literacy First program on student outcomes through the 2019-2020 school year, and has since released an updated version of the report to include the newly collected data. 

Overall, the study showed that students who received Literacy First tutoring outperformed students who did not receive Literacy First tutoring on all included outcome measures, demonstrating improvement in early reading skills, oral reading fluency, and reading comprehension within the same school year. In addition, students who received Literacy First tutoring in Grade 2 scored higher on the STAAR Grade 3 for both reading and mathematics.  

Read the full report here. 

August 2021

Literacy First Staff Lead Training in Collaboration with Greater Austin Reading Coalition

Literacy First is working in collaboration with the Greater Austin Reading Coalition to promote high quality literacy development opportunities for all students, both during the school day as well as outside of school. As part of that collaborative, Literacy First staff are providing training and support to staff at the Greater Austin Extend-a-Care YMCA to promote powerful literacy activities in their after-school program. On August 12th, Supervisors Sebastian Wren and Jason Buckingham trained over 100 staff on effective strategies for reading aloud to students in order to build their reading skills, reading identities, and engagement with reading. 


June 2021

Director Dr. Mary Ellen Isaacs, Literacy First Featured as Local "Hidden Gems"

As part of their series featuring “Hidden Gems” of Austin, the online publication VoyageAustin conducted an interview with Literacy First Director Dr. Mary Ellen Isaacs. The piece covers Dr. Isaacs’ path to Literacy First, as well as what’s next for the organization. Read it here

April 2021

AmeriCorps Central Texas is KUT Austin's April Get Involved Spotlight Organization

AmeriCorps Central Texas is on air as KUT Austin’s April 2021 Get Involved Spotlight organization! The clip features Literacy First Director Dr. Mary Ellen Isaacs, as well as ACT Recruitment Director Dana Haddad, discussing the service opportunities available through ACT member organizations.

Dr. Isaacs is one of the founders of ACT, a collaborative of 9 local AmeriCorps organizations working together to build racial and socioeconomic equity in Central Texas.

April 2021

Literacy First Included in Annenberg Institute's National Student Support Accelerator

The Annenberg Institute at Brown University has included Literacy First in their sample of early literacy tutoring programs as part of the National Student Support Accelerator. The Accelerator is “devoted to translating promising research about how tutoring can benefit students into action on the ground,” with the mission of accelerating “the growth of high-impact tutoring opportunities for K-12 students in need.”

March 2021

Dr. Elisha Smith Arrillaga Named Dana Center Managing Director

Literacy First is pleased to join our colleagues in welcoming Dr. Elisha Smith Arrillaga as the new Managing Director of the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Smith Arrillaga will partner with Center executive director and Literacy First co-founder Dr. Uri Treisman to continue building equitable access to education.

Learn more about Smith Arrillaga’s background in education leadership here.

Elisha Smith Arrillaga talking to someone

February 2021

Impact of Intensive Tutoring Recognized in Nationwide Talks on Education Amid COVID-19

As discussions continue around how to address the massive disruption in student learning caused by COVID-19, the intensive tutoring model employed successfully by Literacy First and friends like Minnesota Reading Corps has been considered a viable option. In a piece first aired February 1 on NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as an article published on the NPR website on February 8, Education Correspondent Anya Kamenetz explores this and other models as possible paths to rebuild.

For more than 25 years, Literacy First program data has shown that placing highly trained AmeriCorps tutors in elementary schools to provide daily, one-to-one tutoring empowers students to reach grade level in reading. We work every day to continue building our capacity and expand our impact, because we believe that every student should receive the support they need to learn to read so they may read to learn. And in this moment, we know that means more students than ever before need the support of Literacy First and our intensive tutoring model. 

November 2020

AmeriCorps Central Texas Receives 2020 Governor's Volunteer Award for Community Leadership

AmeriCorps Central Texas has been named the recipient of the 2020 Governor’s Volunteer Award for Community Leadership (Network). Founded in part by Literacy First Director Mary Ellen Isaacs, AmeriCorps Central Texas is a collaborative of 9 organizations engaging more than 500 AmeriCorps members annually in direct service. ACT is working to build a more local, more diverse service corps whose members will shape their own futures while strengthening their local community. The Community Leadership Award “recognizes an individual, group, or organization for strengthening their community through intentional partnerships.” 

In 2016, Literacy First was the proud recipient of the Governor’s Volunteer Award for Partners in Education. Learn more about the awards and all of the inspiring 2020 recipients in this press release from OneStar Foundation. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside our amazing partner organizations as we work together to build a bright future for Central Texas.

Photo (December 17, 2020): Literacy First Director Dr. Mary Ellen Isaacs represents AmeriCorps Central Texas as the collaborative is honored at the Governor’s Volunteer Awards Reception.


October 2020

Literacy First Featured in Charles A. Dana Center Pathfinder Magazine

Nearing its 30th year at The University of Texas at Austin, the Charles A. Dana Center has released the first annual Pathfinder magazine, a collection of stories and profiles highlighting the Center’s work to provide equitable access to excellent math and science education. 

Literacy First is a proud to be a part of the Dana Center’s efforts, because we know that access to education starts with literacy. Students who learn to read with Literacy First may then read to learn across subjects. 

This first edition of the Dana Center Pathfinder magazine includes an overview of our early literacy program and support of students during the COVID-19 pandemic in this feature article, as well as a Q&A piece with Director Mary Ellen Isaacs and Senior Bilingual Program Coordinator Jason Buckingham on our upcoming teacher training pilot in Del Valle Independent School District. 

Read the full (digital) edition of Pathfinder here.


October 2020

2019-2020 Literacy First Impact Report

I am proud to share with you the accomplishments of our students, tutors, and staff in the 2019-2020 Literacy First Impact Report. In our 26th year of service, a year unlike any other, our extensive experience and expertise made it possible to seize the opportunity to innovate and grow even under the most difficult of circumstances. With your support, we continue to adapt and adjust in order to provide the early literacy services our students need more than ever before. Thank you for standing beside us on this journey as we build a brighter future for our community.

Mary Ellen Isaacs
Literacy First Director

Read the 2019-2020 Impact Report

This digital impact report features a navigable table of contents on the cover page. Simply click on the title of the page you wish to visit. You’ll find additional interactive links throughout the report.

October 2020

A New Chapter for the Literacy First Advisory Board

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Rabindranath Tagore

Helen Watkins has served on the Literacy First Advisory Board throughout the last decade, and for the most recent four years, as our Chair. Through this service, Helen has upheld a strong commitment to expanding the work of Literacy First, and ultimately, serving more and more students. She played a crucial role in significantly advancing the fundraising efforts that have made that expansion possible, and has inspired others to support our work along the way. Helen spearheaded the launch of the Study Social, a “party with a purpose” by and for young professionals that is now in its 7th successful year. Her love of Literacy First is palpable and contagious; Helen recruited her daughter, Maggie, to join the Study Social planning committee, and her husband, sister and many friends have become loyal supporters of the program over the years. She inspired a new generation to give back, and it all started with an idea, some crockpots of delicious snacks and an evening of live music, before growing into what it is today: a thriving event and legion of supporters (even in a pandemic – less the in-person event, for now). We are forever grateful to Helen for the tremendous amount of time, talent and treasure she has given in service to the Literacy First program and family and to our ever-changing and growing community.

And now, a new chapter is unfolding for Literacy First. As we look toward our bright future ahead, we are excited by the possibilities for further expanding the impact of the Literacy First Advisory Board under the leadership of newly-appointed Chair, Jackie Mata. Jackie has served for several years already, and brings with her a passion for our work and desire to fulfill our greatest potential. Currently a Private Client Advisor & Senior Vice President at Texas Capital Bank, Jackie has also served as COO of the KDK-Harman Foundation (now a part of the Harman-Mayes-Sooch Family Fund), and has served on various other nonprofit boards, including I Live Here I Give Here, where she was instrumental in the early days of the citywide giving day, Amplify Austin. Over the years, Jackie has provided thoughtful and strategic insight critical to the success of many Board initiatives, and has demonstrated a willingness to call on her broad network in order to advance progress toward challenging but achievable goals. And it is her tenacity, empathy and willingness to serve as a true partner with Literacy First staff that has already made her an invaluable member of the team. We are thrilled and honored that Jackie has chosen to accept the role as Chair.

It is not often that we get the chance to stop and thank those that propel us, without reservation, and it is in this moment of reflection that we want to express our unending gratitude to the countless members of our community that have served to help our growing readers reach grade level by third grade, forever impacting the trajectory of their lives. Thank you for joining us, and we look forward to welcoming many more in the year ahead.

In the coming weeks, we will be unveiling our new strategic plan and hope you will join us in one way or another, on this exciting journey ahead!

September 2020

Former Literacy First Tutor and Staff Member Featured in National Podcast

Cristina Flores, 3-year Literacy First AmeriCorps tutor and former Literacy First Recruitment & Outreach Coordinator, was recently featured in a new national podcast called Rebuilding America.
The podcast explores how national service programs have the potential to heal our divisions, engage people of all ages in meaningful work with a common purpose, and transform our communities.
Cristina is interviewed in Episode 3: Closing the Gaps, which highlights national service in education, along with Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach For America, and Rey Saldaña, CEO of Communities In Schools. You can hear Cristina’s alumni testimonial beginning at 18:03.
Cristina is now a Program Officer for AmeriCorps Texas
with OneStar Foundation. 

Listen Here


September 2020

Literacy First Partners Highlight Impact of Organization

The impact of Literacy First would not be possible without the support of generous partners, who help bring awareness and crucial funds to the organization. Recently, we were honored to be highlighted by two of those partners, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Kendra Scott.

The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation “creates opportunities in education, health, and family economic stability for children and families living in urban poverty.” As an education partner of the Foundation, Literacy First’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was featured on Read on to learn how we’ve adapted and scaled our model to support students in this especially challenging time.

As a philanthropic partner of Kendra Scott, Literacy First was awarded a generous grant that will help us expand our model and support 2nd-year Campus Leaders seeking to further their professional development. Leaders like Veronica, who was featured in a Kendra Scott Facets Blog highlighting Literacy First and Ripple Reads.

June 2020

Message from the Director

Note: This update was originally included in the Literacy First June 2020
e-newsletter. To receive the e-newsletter regularly, please subscribe to our e-mail list using the form at the footer of any page on this site. 

Friends of Literacy First,

I write today in the shadow of the immense turmoil and anguish we face as a nation. The ongoing violence and injustice inflicted upon the Black community, compounded by the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has produced, have left many struggling to see a path forward. At Literacy First, we believe strongly in the power of early literacy in addressing educational inequities and racial disparities, and so we remain deeply committed to our mission of teaching students to read. 

As we stand with our community in the fight against systemic racism, we know that the pursuit of justice and equity is more than a moment in history — it is a sustained movement. We are sharing below some of the actions Literacy First has taken internally to dismantle injustice, but fully acknowledge that we have only just begun this work. We pledge to continue learning and engaging as an organization and as individuals.

Mary Ellen Isaacs
Literacy First Director

Literacy First Anti-Racism Work

Literacy First is an active member of ServeAustin, founded in part by Literacy First Director Mary Ellen Isaacs, whose collective vision is for Central Texas to become a racially and economically equitable community. The collaborative’s strategic plan prioritizes a mutual commitment for the 9 Austin AmeriCorps organizations to become more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

In 2019, all staff members of ServeAustin member organizations participated in a 2.5-day “Undoing Racism” training, “an intensive workshop designed to educate, challenge and empower people to “undo” the racist structures that hinder effective social change” from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

Literacy First and ServeAustin have partnered with Promise54 to conduct surveys with staff and AmeriCorps members on their experience of diversity, equity and inclusion within their respective organizations, both in 2018 and 2020. Promise54 is a nonprofit founded on the belief that organizations maximize their impact when “their teams are diverse, their cultures are inclusive, and their practices model the equity they wish to see in the world.”

Literacy First staff have formed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, whose purpose is to make recommendations, in part informed by Literacy First’s Promise54 survey results, for embedding our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our strategic plan.

The Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where Literacy First is housed, has also engaged Promise54 to support the Center’s own Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative. Literacy First staff continue to participate in this process alongside our Dana Center colleagues.

May 2020

Literacy Now Virtual Panel Recording

From May 20, 2020: Watch a recording of this expert panel discussion on recovery efforts in the wake of COVID-19 and how, together, we are building bright futures for our students.



Ellen Arnold Principal, Arnold Public Affairs & Literacy First Advisory Board Member
Ellen is principal and owner of Arnold Public Affairs where she represents nonprofit entities such as Texas PTA, National Multiple Sclerosis Society and Goodwill Industries of Texas before the state legislature, assisting clients with their goals to pass legislation, obtain state appropriations, and influence or impact legislation that potentially affects their organizations. Ellen also serves on the Advisory Board of Literacy First. Prior to becoming a government affairs consultant in 2002, Ellen worked in the field of education for over 20 years, the last several as principal of Barton Creek Elementary School in Eanes ISD in Austin. During her tenure there Barton Creek applied for and received the prestigious National Blue Ribbon School Award, presented by the United States Department of Education.

Helen Dunne Garcia, M.Ed Principal, Del Valle ISD
Helen is principal of Hornsby-Dunlap Elementary, PK-5th Grade Campus in Del Valle ISD. Helen graduated from UT-Austin and has been in education for 17 years. She has worked in several districts with a focus on reading and math in both monolingual and bilingual settings. After serving as an assistant principal in both Austin and Pflugerville ISD, Helen joined DVISD in 2019. In addition to being a principal, Helen is the mother of two very energetic toddlers, Javi and Miguel. They spend a lot of free time outdoors and reading books, they keep her on her toes and active.

Ilza Garcia Administrative Supervisor of Dyslexia & Literacy, Austin ISD
Ilza is a biliterate educator, mother, writer and advocate who attended and taught in AISD schools. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Bilingual and Bicultural Education and serves as a Teacher Consultant for the Heart of Texas Writing Project. She serves as Administrative Supervisor of Dyslexia & Literacy in Austin ISD, as well as the chair of the AISD Dyslexia Support Committee and seeks to improve equitable learning experiences for students in AISD.

Mary Ellen Isaacs, Ph.D Director, Literacy First
Mary Ellen has nearly 25 years of experience with Literacy First, and four decades of experience working in the field of reading difficulties as a teacher, diagnostician and program coordinator. She has a deep knowledge of both research and best practices in reading acquisition, and brings this expertise to shaping and growing our highly effective early literacy intervention program. Mary Ellen believes that learning to read is the right of every child, and has dedicated her career to ensuring children learn to read well, so they can read to learn. Some of her best memories are of reading aloud to her daughter, and their favorites were Blueberries for Sal, and Miss Rumphius.

Virginia Potter Portfolio Director, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation
Virginia joined the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation in 2008, leading projects in California, Colorado, Cape Town, South Africa, and finally Central Texas. In the Central Texas community, she manages efforts to improve children’s ability to engage and perform effectively at school; to increase access to quality healthcare services for children and their families; to ensure the safety and wellbeing of abused or neglected children, and to provide gifts to organizations or projects that have the power to transform the Austin community. Prior to joining the Foundation in January 2008, Virginia served as director of product marketing with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Earlier in her career, she was a Spanish teacher at Lanier High School in Austin, Texas. Virginia has a bachelor’s in Spanish and linguistics from the University of Virginia and a Master of Business Administration in global business from Saint Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

Moderated by Marisol Foster Executive Director, Webber Family Foundation
Marisol is Executive Director of the Webber Family Foundation, a charitable organization that focuses on closing the achievement gap in academics and the arts. Since 2008, Marisol has managed the Foundation’s grants portfolio in both Washington, DC and Austin, TX. She holds a B.A. in both English and Spanish from the University of Texas. In her spare time, Marisol enjoys volunteering with local nonprofits and spending time outdoors with family.

March 2020

Literacy First Response to COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

Update: Compilation of Resources for Learning, Working, and Thriving from Home

Statement released March 16, 2020

Friends of Literacy First,

While we closely monitor the situation regarding COVID-19 (coronavirus), our top priority remains the health and wellbeing of our students, tutors, staff, partners and supporters.

Literacy First continues to adhere to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The University of Texas at Austin, as well as follow the guidance of our partner organizations, Austin Independent School District, Austin Achieve Public Schools, and Del Valle Independent School District. To that end, our response has included, but is not limited to the following measures:

Following school cancellations prior to the start of districts’ regularly scheduled spring breaks.

All Literacy First staff members working remotely as of Friday, March 13th, with the return timeline to be adjusted based on guidance from the CDC and UT-Austin.

Suspension and reassessment of all in-person gatherings, including the 3rd Annual Literacy Luncheon, previously scheduled for April 22, 2020. More detailed information regarding adjustments to this event will be shared in the coming days.

As circumstances regarding COVID-19 rapidly evolve, such will our response as an organization. In light of extended school closures, Literacy First staff are working to develop plans for our 90+ tutors to continue their service experience in a safe and impactful manner. Wherever and however possible, we will work with our partner organizations to continue to provide literacy education, as well as new forms of support that may be needed for students in Central Texas.

Now, as much as ever before, we believe in the importance of literacy and education as catalysts for a stronger, brighter future. We are tremendously grateful for your continued support as we navigate this situation, and look forward to collaborating together in new and creative ways as a community. Thank you.

September 2019

Literacy First Expands Impact in Central Texas through Partnership with Del Valle ISD

During the 2018-2019 school year, Literacy First piloted a new program delivery model in which Literacy First trained Del Valle Independent School District staff (full-time tutors and reading specialist) to effectively deliver the Literacy First program. The pilot was resoundingly successful, with the same strong results in DVISD as are seen in schools with our traditional AmeriCorps program model. With the support of Del Valle Administrators and the Board of Trustees, the program has expanded to all 9 DVISD schools in the 2019-2020 school year. Working with up to 45 tutors and staff, Literacy First will reach approximately 650 K-2nd grade students in DVISD. With this model, Literacy First can empower districts to build their own internal capacity to improve early reading, as well as build a workforce pipeline for members of the community. 

August 2019

Literacy First Students Outperform Peers in Randomized Control Trial

During the 2018–2019 school year, the American Institutes for Research partnered with Literacy First to conduct an independent evaluation of the impact of the Literacy First program on student outcomes. The evaluation used a multi-site randomized controlled trial design across 22 schools in the Austin Independent School District. Overall, the study showed that students who received Literacy First tutoring outperformed students who did not receive Literacy First tutoring on all five of the outcome measures included in the evaluation. Read the full report here.

January 2019

New Literacy First Study Shows Even More Positive Longterm Effects

Literacy First was the subject of a recently completed study from local program analysis pros Agile Analytics. The study shows that Literacy First students are less likely to be retained, more likely to perform better on reading exams in the future, and other significantly positive results. For an overview of the study, click here. For in-depth analysis and methodology, view the Executive Summary or Full Report.

December 2018

The Cory Redding Foundation Expands Literacy First Support

The Cory Redding Foundation deepened their support of Literacy First with a $7500 gift in early December. Cory Redding, former NFL defensive tackle, University of Texas alum, and philanthropist, founded the organization  to “support quality educational, recreational, and community assistance programs that promote the development of at-risk programs.” The Foundation selects three community nonprofits each year. In addition to this generous gift, Mr. Redding has been an honored guest and speaker at several Literacy First events, providing motivation and insight to our Literacy First tutors and leaders. Priscilla Redding is a valued Literacy First Board Member. We are grateful to have them in our Literacy First family. Thank you to Cory, Priscilla, and the Cory Redding Foundation for your steadfast and joyful giving to Literacy First and to the Austin community.

September 2018

Asociacion de Empresarios Mexicanos Austin Supports Literacy First on Mexican Independence Day

Asociacion de Empresarios Mexicanos Austin (AEM), the Austin chapter of the Mexican Entrepreneurs Association, became a member of the Literacy First family at their annual Mexico’s Independence Day Celebration on Saturday, September 15. AEM members and friends raised $2500 for Literacy First at a beautiful event celebrating Mexican culture and heritage. Director Mary Ellen Isaacs and several Literacy First staff attended this amazing event. We would like to thank AEM for their support. Literacy First is honored to be recognized by this prestigious group and looks forward to further partnership!   See additional photos from the event on the AEM Facebook page here.

September 2018

Literacy First Welcomes 80 AmeriCorps Members in 25th Annual Pledge Ceremony

– Featured speaker Cory Redding; former NFL defensive tackle, University of Texas alum – Redding: “Changing children’s lives is better” than any football play he’s ever had – AmeriCorps members to teach 1,700 children in 26 Title 1 schools to read   AUSTIN, TX – SEPTEMBER 4, 2018 For the 25th year in a row, Literacy First welcomed 80 AmeriCorps members to their program in an inspiring ceremony on Tuesday, September 4th at the Thompson Conference Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The ceremony kicked off a week of intense training for the members before they begin providing literacy interventions for 1, 700 K-2nd grade students at 26 high-poverty Austin elementary schools. Speakers included Cory Redding, former NFL defensive tackle and University of Texas alum turned philanthropist; Dr. Jacquie Porter, Statewide Director of Early Education for the Texas Education Agency; Dr. Uri Treisman, Executive Director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas and co-founder of Literacy First; and Dr. Mary Ellen Isaacs, Literacy First Director. The speakers emphasized the metamorphosis that the newly minted tutors will soon experience. “In all these glorious moments, I guarantee that not only are you changing the lives of our students, but also your trajectory,” said Dr. Isaacs in opening statements. Literacy First’s mission is no less than community transformation. National studies show that students who cannot read by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school.  Literacy First believes that obtaining early-grade reading skills gives all children the ability and vision to reach their full potential. Their charge is to bring these children up to grade level in reading by third grade, a crucial benchmark in determining success throughout their lives. The experience transforms tutors as well. Literacy First often inspires tutors to take on a lifetime of service in education, while others go on to become leaders in public policy, law, medicine, and social services. About 20% of Literacy First tutors become teachers. The latest cohort of AmeriCorps members will join an elite group of champions for educational equity, bringing their enthusiasm and compassion to one of Austin’s largest full-time AmeriCorps programs, and the longest-running AmeriCorps program in the state of Texas. “Helping these children understand that they belong in the world, you have the enormous privilege of being their guides,” said Dr. Uri Triesman. He then led the auditorium in the AmeriCorps pledge, which ends with a promise to “get things done.”


Founded in 1994, Literacy First (formerly ACE: A Community for Education) provides innovative, research-based bilingual literacy intervention to struggling young readers at high-poverty, public elementary schools. Over the past two decades, our work has engaged more than 1,000 community members as tutors and has impacted over 18,000 Central Texas students. Year after year, approximately 75% of the children who receive one-to-one tutoring from Literacy First either reach grade level or make significant, measurable progress in key early reading skills every year. Literacy First is an outreach program of the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin. The Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin works with our nation’s education systems to ensure that every student leaves school prepared for success in postsecondary education and the contemporary workplace.  

June 2018

"Life in the Heights" Neighborhood Magazine Features Literacy First

Literacy First was the subject of the Making a Difference feature in Life in the Heights, the neighborhood magazine for the Pemberton Heights neighborhood in Austin. Literacy First Board members Tory Newby and Helen Watkins profiled our program beautifully. Thanks, Helen and Tory! Permalink: Jun_2018_Life_in_the_Heights_LF_Only

May 2018

Mary Ellen Isaacs featured on the Charles A. Dana Center Blog

Literacy First Director Mary Ellen Isaacs was one of the first guest bloggers requested for the new Charles A. Dana Center blog. Writing about the reasoning and process behind our program, Mary Ellen describes the challenges of learning without strong reading skills in “Learning to Read; Reading to Learn.” Dana Center website: Permalink: UTDC blog 2018 – MEI

March 2018

Literacy First unveils the new and improved website!

For some time now, we have wanted to better connect with our supporters, partners and prospective tutors. We’re excited about our new ‘look’ and look forward to sharing more stories with you.

January 2018

RetailMeNot, Inc. becomes Dr. Seuss Reading Day’s first financial sponsor!

We are so grateful to have RetailMeNot’s support for many years now. This year, they are teaming up with our affinity group, Lawyers for Literacy as our guests get an opportunity to read to a child. You don’t want to miss this event!

November 2017

Literacy First has a new home!

We are now located at the West Pickle Research Center in northwest Austin. Our work is still very much in the schools where we serve, but we are loving our new digs. Our new address is 3925 W Braker Lane Suite 3.801 Austin, TX 78759

August 2017

Literacy First Director featured in Austin Woman Magazine

Literacy First Director Mary Ellen Isaacs was interviewed about our program in Austin Woman‘s online August issue. Mary Ellen about the importance of literacy and the effects of socio-economic status on education in “Literacy First: Bridging the Education Gap” – and provides a great summer reading list for new readers. Austin Woman website: Permalink: AW August 2017

March 2017

The Alcalde features Literacy First

The Alcalde, The University of Texas’s alumni magazine profiled the Literacy First program in the March 2017 online edition. The article provides a comprehensive overview of the program, a vivid description of a site visit, and quotes from several UT alums who became tutors. The Alcalde website: Permalink: The Alcalde 03-01-2017

September 2016

Our New Name Revealed!

This is what you all have been waiting for. Watch all the way through to the end to find out what our new name will be, starting TODAY.