Reading Corps offers a chance to really serve the community
By Jamal Denman
When it comes to ranking the importance of the vast range of human skill sets, it would be difficult to place many above the ability to read. Learning opportunities are infinitely increased for those who have strong reading and comprehension capabilities, and the earlier one begins to learn and develop these skills, the more likely one is to become highly proficient at them.
Unfortunately, reading and being able to understand what is being read in its most basic form is not something you develop naturally. They are skills that have to be taught and learned from one individual to another.
This is what makes the service that Minnesota Reading Corps provides so important. Since 2003, the AmeriCorps program has been training tutors to work with young people from the age of three years old to the third grade on the development of their literacy skills.
According to their website, the Minnesota Reading Corps began by working with children in four Head Start programs. Since then, they have expanded to more than 750 tutors working with youth in 500 Head Start facilities, preschools, and elementary schools in various parts of Minnesota.
Kathy Saltzman, the executive director of the Minnesota Reading Corps (as well as executive director of the Minnesota Math Corps), has been involved with the program for approximately a year and half. Her passion for preparing and providing young people with quality learning opportunities is apparent from her work history; before taking on leadership of the Reading and Math Corps, Saltzman served in the Minnesota Senate on the Education Committee for four years working on education reform.
“A lot of the work that I did, I really focused on what we are going to do to identify programs that are closing the achievement gap,” Saltzman says of her work in the Senate. She feels that it is important to focus on not just the success of some, but of all children, so she authored and supported legislation that funded programs like the Minnesota Reading Corps, as well as changing teacher training requirements that she felt would better prepare them to be more effective educators.
Just as developing reading and comprehension skills at an early age improves the probability of future learning, the opposite is true for those who do not get the opportunity to do so. “If kids can’t read by the third grade, it’s very, very difficult for them to catch up with their peers,” Saltzman points out.
“One of the things that I always say is: First you learn to read, and then you read to learn.” She believes that children that fall behind their fellow classmates early in their educational experience, become “in-school dropouts,” and begin to disengage themselves from school and the learning process.
Saltzman claims that the Minnesota Reading Corps knows how to work with schools to identify young people who are below-grade reading proficiency at an early age. They target kids who “fall through the cracks” — who do not qualify for special programs or instruction — and assign trained tutors to work with them on a daily basis.
The work tutors do with students is not meant to replace the work of teachers; it is intended to enhance it. “Our members are not replacing teachers in classrooms. They are providing supplemental practice.”
Tutors, once recruited, are put through a rigorous training program before school starts for the year, and are provided with ongoing coaching and training throughout the year. The student’s progress is monitored throughout the process, and if it is determined that their reading is not improving, different methods are explored.
“If we find that a child is not making progress, we need to do something different,” says Saltzman. “It’s very similar to if you go to a doctor, and he prescribes you a prescription, and after three or four weeks if you’re not getting better, the doctor may not keep giving you the same prescription. He might say, ‘Well, we need to do something different.’
“What we do is called progress monitoring, [where] we continue to monitor the progress of the student. If they’re improving and we can see their growth, then we know that it’s working.”
Saltzman also says that the tutors are having a profound effect on the youth they work with, mentioning that in the 2010-11 school year, 80 percent of the children who completed the Reading Corps program passed the third grade reading test. The effect on the children themselves is also profound, as it instills a sense of pride and accomplishment in them that stems from learning and improving their reading skills.
Shannon Johnson, a divorced mother of three, became a Minnesota Reading Corps member when her children grew older and found that she had a little more free time on her hands. She learned of the program from a friend who had served a year before, and applied when she saw that there was an opening at the school her kids attended.
Johnson describes being a tutor as “an immensely rewarding experience,” being able to help young people and witnessing their progress. She encourages anyone who is able to volunteer.
“Knowing that you touched an individual child’s life — even if you could make a difference in just one kid’s life — it’s something that you are going to keep with you forever… It gives you a different perspective on what it means to be a part of your community and to help kids and families be successful,” Johnson enthusiastically testifies.
Volunteers range from students taking a break from college and recent graduates to retired grandparents. Members who serve with the Minnesota Reading Corps full time receive about $500 every two weeks as a living allowance. After completing all volunteer hour requirements, tutors are also eligible for an additional $5,550 educational reward that can be applied to the volunteer’s personal education expenses or even a family member who is in college. The Minnesota Reading Corps is recruiting tutors across the state, but the need is greatest in the Twin Cities metro area.
For more information, visit the websites www.joinreadingcorps.org or www.minnesotareading corps.org, or call 612-206-3030 and tell them you read about the program in the MSR.
Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]