Nnenna Okpara, MAED ’14, EdD '18 grew up in Nigeria with her grandfather, one of the premiers of the country. At age 12, she came to the U.S. and found her passion in special education.
“I liked the unpredictability of who would walk into your class and the issues they have day to day,” Okpara says.
She now teaches first and second grade for kids with mild to moderate learning disabilities in Norwalk La Mirada Unified School District. But three years ago she felt burdened to do more to help students struggling to read English, particularly those with learning disabilities and those from recently immigrated families.
“What happens to them later?” she asked. “What if one of these kids was the key to the future but didn’t have the access?”
Her novel solution was to use her own money to rent space in a shopping center and open the I Read Academy reading center.
“I just wanted to pay my rent and utilities and have space for these kids to come,” Okpara says. “My goals were very basic.”
Three years later she has helped hundreds of kids, hired highly qualified tutors and expanded into homework help for students at all grade levels.
“If a kid needs help, I do what I can to get them resources,” she says. “I’m really interested in the underdog.”
The center draws from a wide variety of backgrounds: doctors’ kids, recent immigrants and those in special education that most learning centers aren’t equipped to help.
“All these kids are learning in the same space and have respect and regard for each other,” says Okpara, who works there four days a week after school.
The center feels homey, not clinical. There are snacks, music, books and a couch to flop on.
“I signed up for classes and could not believe the quality of instruction I was getting.”
“I wanted kids to learn without knowing they were learning,” Okpara says. “I’ve been really pleased by the success of it.”
Local teachers refer students to her for beyond-the-classroom help. Okpara found university-educated tutors who “have a heart for this kind of mission and believe in giving everyone access to education.” One is going to MIT in the fall.
“When someone comes in, we meet them where they are,” Okpara says. “We only work on areas they’re struggling with.”
Students must be ready to work.
“I am not a babysitter,” says Okpara. “I only take kids who are willing to learn and willing to try.”
A few years ago, Okpara’s principal encouraged her to get her master’s degree in administration. She attended a Concordia information session and was impressed.
“It sounded really amazing,” she says. “I signed up for classes and could not believe the quality of instruction I was getting. These were real-time practitioners—principals, teachers, administrators. I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’”
She completed her master's degree in Educational Administration and is now enrolled in the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, the first doctoral program offered at Concordia.
“It’s been tremendous,” she says. “I’m learning so much, including things that help me run my business.”
The I Read Academy probably “won’t ever be a money-making endeavor,” she says, “but I have a level of satisfaction that I don’t think you can buy. If you have your heart in the right place, things end up working out.”