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DES MOINES, Iowa — A Des Moines father of two is on a mission to involve more men of color in their students’ lives and improve literacy rates for minority students within the state’s largest school district.

The idea came to Akil Clark after attending  one of his children’s after-school events where he says he was questioned about being there.

“The fact they didn’t recognize that I could be or I had a reason to be in the school was enough for me to realize something needed to be done,” says Clark, who is African-American. After that, he agreed to be part of the school’s PTO and began to read to classes on a regular basis when he realized something else. The books they were reading, were not reflective of the school’s diverse demographic.

“For students who don`t have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in books, it starts to create an idea in their mind, ‘Am I not worthy?’ Is there a reason I`m not seeing myself reflected in the book?'” he says. Not only that but many students were reading below their grade level.

“We need to figure out what is acceptable. If we are looking at the reading standards in the Des Moines Public Schools we have to have to as a community say, that is unacceptable for 17 % of African-American boys at the end of 3rd grade to be reading at level.”

In 2018, Clark launched the Spark Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at reducing the reading achievement gap between high and low-income students in an effort to make sure students can build their own personal library.

Through the foundation, Clark receives donations from community groups to offer free book fairs to some of Des Moines’ poorest schools. According to the district, nearly 80-percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch meaning the average family of four makes less than $33,475 annually.

By launching the program, Clark has been able to distribute roughly 2,000 books, all of them featuring diverse characters written by ethnic authors. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but school leaders at Monroe Elementary School say the impact is almost immediate.

“For them to have a community partner that`s bringing in books full of people who look like them and for volunteers to come and read to the classroom who look and sound like them really makes a difference in the conversations they are having in their classes. Instead of talking about their differences they start talking about the things they have in common,” says Leslie Christensen, a community coordinator at Monroe Elementary.

The program also has an emphasis on making sure students have their own books to take home with them over the summer to reduce the amount of summer brain drain, something Clark says students at all schools could benefit from.

“One of the things I don`t want to lose sight of is we have students with needs in all districts. It’s not just DMPS. It would be very short-sighted to think there wouldn`t be a need for something like this in Johnston or in Ankeny. There are always kids that could benefit from having more books. The sky’s the limit.”

The Spark Foundation is accepting donations and in-classroom volunteer reading application forms.