- Sponsorship -

Making an impact: Tutoring center empowers kids through literacy

Director talks importance of reading fundamentals, community support

Grand Rapids — Ask Maryann Venskus about what she does for a living and you’ll see her eyes light right up as she talks about promoting student literacy and supporting Grand Rapids teachers. 

As director of the tutoring center at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, Venskus coordinates a slate of about 50 community volunteers who come by and read to the school’s kindergarten, first- and second-grade students throughout the school year.

“I know I’m making some kind of impact,” Venskus said of her role. “I’m doing something, and it feels connected to what’s going on in the school.”

And it is connected. The center makes sure every kindergarten through second-grade student at MLK has reading time each week, October through May. Often, Venskus said, she’ll make a note of topics teachers are covering in their classrooms and then select books with similar themes. 

“I pick something in the classroom that they’re doing, and then reinforce it in the tutoring center,” she said, using consonant-vowel-consonant curriculum as a recent example of the overlap.

Tutor Eva Luckoff works with first-grader Serenity Thompson at the MLK Leadership Academy tutoring center

The time in the tutoring center is not only helpful for students, it also benefits the teachers, who are able to focus on small-group work when portions of their class are in the center.

While students are done with weekly reading sessions at the center by the end of second grade, Venskus keeps the third- through eighth-graders in mind. She stops by classrooms on a monthly basis to bring “reading treats” like donuts or granola bars, as well as gift bags stuffed with books and supplies that teachers can auction off.

Educators at MLK are happy to have Venskus at the school, said Principal Harvey Crawley, adding that her presence helps create and sustain a positive climate for students and teachers alike.

“Maryann is a valuable member of our MLK family and staff,” said Crawley. “Her commitment to the scholars and staff is greatly appreciated and has not gone unnoticed.”

‘If we can teach people how to read, their lives do get better.’

— Maryann Venskus, director of MLK Leadership Academy Tutoring Center

Fortuitous Partnership

The tutoring center is the product of a unique partnership between the Grand Rapids elementary school and First United Methodist Church. The church acts as the fiduciary, funding the operation, and the school offers up a first-floor space to serve as the center’s base of operations.

The relationship is based on mutual respect, said Venskus, who’s an employee of the church. 

The center started out decades ago as an effort to localize the church’s impact. It was the brainchild of two members, Lois Mosley and Kathy Laidlaw, who were looking for a way to give back at the local level. They turned their attention to what was then called Henry Street School. 

Starting with the simple task of reading to kids, “Kathy and Lois grew the program into a tutoring program, a parent outreach program, an enrichment program for students in the building,” Venskus said.

The pairing has worked well because the center started small and built a foundation of trust before gradually adding new features, she said.

“There was a trust between us, and the teachers and the district, that we were not going to overstep and that we truly are here to support,” Venskus said.

The center’s work was more widespread prior to COVID-19, and involved fundraising for field trips and other activities, but the pandemic led to a sharpening of its focus.

“We transitioned into … staying in the lane of literacy support and teacher support, because that seems what’s most needed right now, after the pandemic,” Venskus said.

The center also provides gift cards to teachers to help with necessary classroom purchases via an annual holiday “giving tree” event; collects book donations for giveaways; distributes prizes in support of MLK’s positive behavior interventions; and coordinates a pen pal program with students from Forest Hills’ Thornapple Elementary.

Tutor Eva Luckoff works with first-grader Serenity Thompson at the MLK Leadership Academy tutoring center

‘A Great Fit’

The tutoring center is an optimal landing spot for Venskus, who has a master’s of education in counseling and student development from the University of Delaware. She’s also long been a supporter of public schools.

“I was always involved in schools with my kids. I was a PTA president and I volunteered in the classrooms as well,” she said. 

When she moved to the Grand Rapids area about 13 years ago, she was looking for ways to help out at an underserved school. She saw a notice on social media about a volunteer opening at MLK Tutoring Center, and she went for it.

As she started volunteering, what stood out was the degree to which her work in the center had “a direct line” to what was being taught in class.

“I know I’m doing with this student what needs to be done and what’s being mirrored in the classroom,” Venskus remembered thinking.

After volunteering for about a year, she started to take on more and more responsibility, and was hired on as a staff member. Eventually, when the director position became available, merging two previous part-time administrative roles into one, she applied.

She’s found her niche with the tutoring center.

“It was a great fit with good programming, and spoke to my love of literacy too,” she said. “If we can teach people how to read, their lives do get better.”

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Sophomore exhibits shine light on human rights
Senior picked as Black History Maker of Tomorrow

- Sponsorship -
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU