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Promise Academy Education Director Creates Culture of Literacy

Kelly Willinger, Assistant Principal

HCZ Promise Academy teacher Kelly Willinger

As an education director at HCZ Promise Academy Elementary School, Kelly Willinger would make journeys to Long Island with an empty suitcase in tow. She would go to the Book Fairies, where educators can get free books for their schools. Kelly has a bit of a reputation there.

“I would do ‘Supermarket Sweeps’ around the place,” Kelly says, laughing. ” I’m known for taking the most books.”

It was a haul back to Harlem, where she has given away nearly half a million books to Promise Academy scholars. But for Kelly, a former literacy coach and educator director who is now an assistant principal, it’s all in days work.

“Everyone at Harlem Children’s Zone has a piece of the puzzle they put together,” Kelly says. “I’m happy I found my niche.”

Inspiring a love of books and reading

Kelly is one of the many educators at HCZ Promise Academy who is transforming the lives of our scholars. At HCZ Promise Academy, we make a promise to our scholars to help them get to and through college. Kelly is helping them reach that goal by instilling a love of books and reading.

A former education director and literacy coach, Kelly helped create a library at Promise Academy I. She also organized school-wide reading marathons, coordinated a curriculum library for teachers, and encouraged hundreds of scholars to become enthusiastic readers. Each year, scholars at Promise Academy I read a collective 75,000 books.

Growing up around books

It’s no surprise Kelly loves to read: she grew up around books. Her mother, a librarian, brought Kelly to the library, where she read everything and anything.

Although reading is often considered a solitary activity, Kelly has never thought of it as such. As a student, she remembers her classmates enjoying the “Goosebumps” books with the lights off and a flashlight under their chins.

“Often, you think of reading as sitting by yourself and being quiet. But it could also be an incredibly fun, social experience,” says the former education director. “I want that for our kids.”

‘What are you reading?’

While students often equate reading with homework, Kelly wants them to know that it’s fun, too. As she walks the halls of HCZ Promise Academy, Kelly will exchange book recommendations with scholars.

“I ask our scholars, ‘What are you reading.’ It’s because I want to read it, too,” says the education director turned assistant principal. “I’ve read more ‘Captain Underpants’ than I know what to do with.”

One of the best ways to get Kelly’s recommendations is the book vending machine — a fully operational vending machine that gives scholars a best-selling book with a special token. Scholars receive a token when they read the most books for the week.

An HCZ Promise Academy Elementary School scholar uses her token at the book vending machine.

An HCZ Promise Academy Elementary School scholar uses her token at the book vending machine.

‘Kids are the best part’

Kelly Willinger first began teaching at HCZ Promise Academy Elementary School while she worked on her master’s degree at Hunter College. She had just completed her Teach for America summer training, and she was blown away by the high quality of the school.

“The teaching, the building, the level of support — everything was different,” recalls Kelly who started at HCZ Promise Academy as an English Language Arts teacher. “It was tough, but I still remember my coaches, principal, and fellow teachers coming into the room to help out.”

She adds, “Out of everything though, the kids, and seeing them enthusiastic about reading — that’s the best part.”


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