On a recent visit to Alice Terry Elementary School in Englewood, Reading Partners volunteer Ruthann Moomy tutors a shy 8-year-old (whom we will call Naomi). When Naomi began the literacy program in October, she was reading seven months below her second grade peers. Studies show that once students start to fall behind in reading, they tend to fall faster and further behind their peers every year, making catching up nearly impossible.
For young readers, the transition from learning to read to reading to learn is critical for future achievement and success. But the statistics are alarming. According to the U.S. Department of Education, two out of three students in the United States cannot read proficiently by the time they reach fourth grade. The situation is even more discouraging for students like Naomi who come from low-income families—nearly 80 percent read below grade level.
The Importance of Giving Back
“I still get chills when I hear the statistics,” says Emily Holterman, development manager for Reading Partners Colorado. “Colorado currently has the third fastest growing rate of childhood poverty in the nation and only 21 percent of students from low-income communities in the state are reading proficiently. The ramifications are huge. If you can’t read proficiently by fourth grade, you are four times more likely to drop out of high school. If you don’t graduate from high school, you can cost your local community $260,000 just in lost earnings and taxes. It’s a much bigger issue than just one kid and one family. That is why we really stress the importance of giving back to your local community and to volunteer your time to the kids in our shared community.”
For Reading Partners, a national nonprofit literacy intervention program, community volunteers serve as the backbone of the program’s mission to bridge the achievement gap by providing one on one tutoring to elementary aged students in under-resourced schools who are falling behind in reading. Reading Partners was established in 1999 by three mothers who volunteered at Belle Haven Elementary School in Menlo Park, California and has since expanded to more than 160 schools across eight states. Reading Partners Colorado serves over 700 students in 13 schools throughout the Denver metro area, with plans to expand to 18-20 schools next year.
For Ruthann, a retiree who used to work in finance, the decision to volunteer for Reading Partners stemmed from volunteering for a GED preparation program and seeing how difficult it is for high school dropouts to finish their education. “I realized then the biggest challenge we face is keeping kids in school,” she says. “Once a student drops out, it’s so much more difficult to make up for lost time.” Ruthann does not have experience teaching or working with children. “I don’t even particularly like children,” she jokes with Alice Terry site coordinator Dave Revere. No experience is required for volunteers who are given a step-by-step, structured lesson plan to follow each week, prompting them what to say when, and which questions to ask like, “Who are the characters?” and “Where does the story take place?”
Since they started working together, not only has Naomi’s reading improved (she has gained nearly two months of reading ability for every month of her grade level peers), she is also more confident and participates more in class. Overall, the mid-year assessment shows promising results at Alice Terry: of the 61 students enrolled in the program, 88 percent have accelerated their rate of learning; 100 percent have narrowed their achievement gap.
A Wide Range of Students
The results from the independent research study carried out by education and social policy research firm, MDRC, reveal the effectiveness of Reading Partners as a national model. The study shows that the program works for a wide range of students—regardless of grade level, gender or ethnicity; students gain, on average, one and a half to two months of growth in literacy for every month they spend in the program; and Reading Partners is a resource multiplier (for every dollar invested in the program, the students receive two dollars in resources).
Perhaps most important for implementing Reading Partners as a low cost option for already under-resourced schools, the study highlights the benefit of using community volunteers. “We can keep costs low by recruiting and training community volunteers. They are the backbone of our program. We wouldn’t have the success we have without people in the community who are passionate about this,” says Holterman.
“The real testament to the uniqueness of our program is the volunteer experience,” adds Jessica Harper, community engagement manager. “Ruthann has been coming here and keeps coming back because she sees the difference she is making. It’s a relationship we value and we are always asking how do we steward our volunteers?’ We know it’s a commitment. We are always working to making it better.”
Mission: To help children become lifelong readers by empowering communities to provide individualized literacy instruction with measurable results.
Contact: Reading Partners Colorado is at 3131 Osceola St., #303, Denver, 80121. Call 720-409-9909.
How you can help: Visit www.readingpartners.org/colorado to volunteer or make a donation.
Upcoming Events: Give the gift of reading! Donate to the year-end fundraising campaign by visiting www.readingpartners.org/donate.
Rachel Engleberg spent a decade in New York City producing documentaries for ABC News, NBC News and New York Times Television. She is now a freelance writer and mother. She lives in Denver with her husband and three children.
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