Our mission is to ensure that all early learners are fully equipped with the literacy skills necessary to read at or above grade level by the end of 3rd grade.


We envision a society in which citizens of urban neighborhoods are educated and empowered to lead themselves and their communities toward lives of success and achievement.

Our Philosophy

AKOBEN believes that the cycle of poverty in American cities can be broken through education of the current and future generation of young people living in under-resourced neighborhoods. We believe that a laser focus on pre-K though 3rd grade reading and comprehension skills will tackle the root cause of poor educational achievement. Only a long-term commitment to improving literacy – involving parents, schools, community outreach, and, of course, the children themselves – will result in significantly improved high school graduation rates and ultimately a reduction of poverty.


Akoben was founded in 2011, and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in July 2012. Akoben started as a mentoring program for middle school youth and served over 300 young people over nearly four years. After learning about the profound links between 4th grade reading and comprehension skills and adult success, Akoben Foundation refocused the strategic direction of the organization and launched the “Reading, Rhythm, and the Arts” program in April 2015. The program is culturally responsive and rooted in evidence-based practices including small group literacy instruction and arts augmented learning programs.


Board of Directors

William J. Blatt – Chairman

William Blatt is a retired telecommunications professional whose 30-year career included senior roles in general management, marketing, sales, product development, and operations for major telecommunications equipment suppliers, network service providers, consulting firms, and technology start-up companies. Mr. Blatt served with distinction on the FCC’s National Reliability and Interoperability Council from 1992 – 1999, and on the board of the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) from 1996 – 2001. Bill is a volunteer with Neighbor Ride, and has previously served as a Trustee for The Morris Museum, Preschool Advantage, and the Morris Education Foundation, all located in Morristown, NJ.

Alisha Sparks – Treasurer

Alisha is a proud alumna of Voorhees College where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics in 2002.  She currently serves the Elementary Schools STEM Program Manager at the Center for Educational Outreach at Johns Hopkins University.  Prior to joining Johns Hopkins, she worked for Baltimore City Public Schools, Baltimore CDF Freedom Schools and the Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

In addition to her professional experience, she had done extensive work in her local community and abroad by serving with organizations such as In His Presence Ministries, W. J. Thompson, Jr. Ministries, Girl Scouts of Central Maryland and the International Partnership for Service Learning.

Alisha also holds a Master of Arts in Instructional Systems Development from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.  She is enrolled as a student in the Doctor of Education Program at Johns Hopkins University.

Katharina Furrs – Secretary

Katharina Furrs graduated early from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, wherein she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree as a double major in Political Science & Public Policy.  She currently works at Green Street Academy, in Baltimore MD, as the Director of After-School and Athletic Programming.  Katharina began her career working in the cyber-intelligence community and contributes much of her professional growth and ultimate decision to work in the non-profit sector in Community Development to her experiences in the corporate world.  Known for her passion working with children and families from disadvantaged communities, Katharina has worked as the Director of Patterson Park Youth Sports and Education Center, and as the Programs Coordinator for Living Classrooms’ strategic East Baltimore Community Development Initiative.  “It is rewarding to have the opportunity to create connections and build programs that have the ability to impact the numerous children, youth, and families for whom the pipeline to educational and economic success is nonexistent.”

Hargun Grewal – Chair, Fundraising Committee

Hargun graduated from California Poly Technic University with a degree in Animal Science.  She spent over 5 years as a research associate at the Brain Imaging center at California Technological Institute (CalTech) conducting studies focused on optimizing imaging using a newly developed PET insert for MRI.  After moving from California to Baltimore Hargun underwent a career change and decided to explore the field of social work. She has worked with The Girls and Boys Hope of Baltimore as a tutor and mentor, a substance abuse intake specialist at the Family Health centers of Baltimore, and as a case manager in the workforce development field. She has also volunteered in the campaigns of local government officials.

Carla D. Blackwell – Chair, Best Practices & Research

Carla D. Blackwell is a veteran middle school English Language Arts educator and graduate student completing her master’s degree in Literacy Education at Loyola University Maryland. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication Science and Disorders with a concentration in Deaf Studies from Towson University in Baltimore, MD. Carla has participated and completed educational and professional development at the Johns Hopkins University, as well as Harvard University. Most recently, she completed Harvard’s Graduate School of Education’s professional seminar titled “Learning to Talk by Talking”, led by renowned educational scholar, Dr. Catherine Snow. Carla has committed years of experience and engagement in the areas literacy and education, including work with the Girl Scouts of America, The Greater Baltimore Urban League, the Touchstones Discussion Project, and L.E.A.P. for Ghana (Literacy Empowerment Action Project). Most recently, Carla served as co-coordinator and moderator for a community forum on adolescent literacy with Son of a Dream, a non-profit which advocates for and works to enhance the educational and social development of African American adolescent males in Baltimore City. Carla plans obtain her doctorate in education with a focus on the influence of culture and community, as well as educational policy. It is her hope to study the educational frameworks and literacy practices of adolescence throughout the African diaspora as a measure to increase academic and global success of future generations. Along with her love for music, movies, and leisure reading, Carla occasionally delves in her passion for photography, which she plans to use as a tool to advocate for educational equality. Her most notable and humbling accomplishment is being mother to a musically gifted, compassionate teenager.

Brian J. Schanbacher

Mr. Schanbacher is currently the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Green Street Academy in Baltimore, Maryland.  Mr. Schanbacher has worked in Baltimore City Public Schools for 15 years as a teacher, Teacher Leader, Professional Developer, Curriculum Writer, Assistant Principal and Academic Dean.  Mr. Schanbacher has also worked closely with SARE at Johns Hopkins University.   Prior to working in Baltimore, Mr. Schanbacher worked for University of Pittsburgh as a Research Associate after working for AYA Colorado as a team leader. Mr. Schanbacher got his Bachelors of Science from Temple University and his Masters Degree from The University of Notre Dame MD. 


Ryan A. Turner, Executive Director

Ryan Turner, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, is the founder and Executive Director of The AKOBEN Foundation, Incorporated. After pursuing a collegiate career in Psychology at the historic Hampton University, Mr. Turner was inspired to be an active agent in his hometown. During the course of his career, Mr. Turner has worked with families and children spanning from Tidewater, VA to Baltimore, MD. He holds expertise in child and adolescent development, victimization and betrayal of adolescence, and principles of group process and group intervention. He is a sought after presenter on topics that include poverty in urban communities, urban youth and academic achievement and non-profit development. Mr. Turner’s unwavering commitment to the advancement of urban communities led him to become a qualitative researcher with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; examining the developmental barriers faced by youth and adults in low-income neighborhoods. Mr. Turner’s discoveries motivated him to establish several landmark initiatives within the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan areas. Most notably, Mr. Turner established a landmark workforce development intensive for residents of a Washington, DC homeless shelter under the auspices of a local nonprofit organization; in addition to an all-male youth mentorship program that promotes leadership development. Mr. Turner is a proud member of Beta Kappa Chi National Honor Society and 2012 recipient of the Dr. Louise Jones-Johnson achievement award for community service and advocacy. Mr. Turner’s life motto is a quote by Woodrow Wilson: “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with a greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world.”