Literacy non-profit founded by Penn GSE alum gets boost from L’Oréal Paris

November 15, 2022
Start Lighthouse founder and Penn GSE alum Rina Madhani in a classroom, reading to elementary school students sitting in a circle

Pictured: Penn GSE alum Rina Madhani (center) reading with students.

L’Oréal Paris is honoring alum Rina Madhani as one of 10 “Women of Worth” finalists this month for her work promoting childhood literacy and educational equity. A former teacher, Madhani is the co-founder and executive director of Start Lighthouse.

Launched in the early days of the pandemic, Start Lighthouse provides books, programs, and community resources in the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City. It's an area where an estimated 70 percent of students are reading below grade level. So the organization helps students build home libraries, introduces books with diverse characters and authors and offers community workshops and programs, including homework help and read-alouds.

“There’s something really magical about having books that belong to you and having a home library,” Madhani said.

Madhani was selected as one of 10 finalists from among 5,000 nominees. The honor comes with mentorship opportunities, national exposure – including a storytelling campaign produced with HBO Max – and a $20,000 grant.

She is also now in the running for the top prize, which includes an additional grant of $25,000. The winner will be selected by a public vote happening online until Wednesday, Nov. 30.

Meanwhile, the initial money is already funding 560 hours of literacy programming. It will also purchase more than 5,000 new multicultural books for students at the organization’s new literacy hub at P.S. 5 Port Morris, a public elementary school in the Bronx. The organization recently transformed their defunct school library into a fully stocked literacy center for 636 Pre-K to 8th-grade students, complete with new books, a full-time staff member, reading programs and community events. Start Lighthouse plans to open its second literacy hub next year and five more after that.

Start Lighthouse has Penn GSE ties

While Madhani’s work is focused in New York City, she conceived Start Lighthouse in Philadelphia while pursuing her M.S.Ed. at Penn GSE’s Teaching, Learning and Leadership Program. She was drawn to the program’s multi-disciplinary approach and the opportunity to deepen her understanding of educational theories and context.

“I noticed a pain point in the community during my time as a teacher but hadn't thought about ‘now what?’” Madhani said. "At Penn GSE, I was able to work with these incredible professors and be in an intimate setting with them and my peers."

An education entrepreneurship class with Amanda Antico, Capstone Director of the program, sharpened her ideas and taught her how to construct a business plan and deliver a powerful pitch. In another course, guest speakers shared their experiences addressing inequity in education, including the benefits of using technology and project-based learning. They emphasized the importance of community partnerships.  

"It opened my eyes to how we can collaborate with others," Madhani recalled. "For Start Lighthouse to succeed and be innovative, we needed to work alongside community stakeholders."

Along with co-founders Brittany Kramer and Concetta Gleason, Madhani launched Start Lighthouse in March 2020 in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools and libraries shuttered, cutting students off from books and educational resources. Start Lighthouse, named for the beacon of light and hope that a lighthouse represents, rushed to deliver books and resources to students.

As a former teacher in NYC, Madhani experienced the literacy crisis first-hand. She worked for two years as a classroom teacher in a South Bronx elementary school and said she was dismayed by the lack of books and engagement. The available books lacked multicultural characters or relatable stories. Many families perceived books as luxury items rather than necessities. The most troubling aspect, Madhani said, was that many children viewed reading as a punishment rather than enjoyment.

She could relate to her students’ frustrations. As a first-generation American, Madhani attended Chicago Public Schools but struggled with reading. She credits her third-grade teacher for encouraging her to read and nurturing her skills. Soon, Madhani began visiting her local library daily and devouring books. However, she didn't find a book with a relatable protagonist until she was 19. 

“I wished I owned books that were mine and that I had access to literature where I could see myself reflected,” she said. “Even today, we have a lot of work to do in children’s literature and kids’ publishing, where 77 percent of books still feature protagonists that are either white or animals.”

Voting for the 2022 L'Oréal Women of Worth National Honoree is open until Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Everyone can vote daily.