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Reading Partners: One child. One tutor. Infinite possibilities.

Posted on 08 August 2017 by Calvin

Midway nonprofit Twin Cities Reading Partners builds one on one to benefit hundreds, one student at a time

One child. One tutor. Infinite possibilities. This is the motto of Reading Partners, 2300 Myrtle Ave., a nonprofit designed to increase the reading level of children in Title 1 schools. By using tutors to work one-on-one with children in K-5th grade, Reading Partners has made a great impact on these students and their ability to read at or above their grade level.

“The program started in California in 1999,” said Karen Casanova, executive director of the Twin Cities Reading Partners. “The first decade was about working on a program model and testing the curriculum. Once that was ready to go, there was a rapid expansion after 2010. “Federal funding helped bring the program to other cities. We are now operating in 14 cities nationwide, Minneapolis-St. Paul became the 13th location to adopt the program.

“We launched the program in schools in the fall of 2015,” Casanova said. “We started in six schools, four in St. Paul and two in Minneapolis. We added five more for a total of 11 this year, and next year we will be in 13 schools in the Twin Cities.”

Photo right: Reading Partners was started in California in 1999. Twin Cities Reading Partners, 2300 Myrtle Ave., started with six schools in 2015, and hopes that next year they will serve 13 schools. (Photo provided)

Reading Partners served 470 students in the Metro this past year, with 570 volunteer tutors. “Typically, we have 1.5 tutors per student,” Casanova said. Students get tutored twice a week for 45 minutes.

Teachers refer students to the program, and a child may be as little as a month behind in reading or up to two years behind, according to Casanova. “We serve both those who are moderately behind and those profoundly behind,” she explained.

For older students who may have consistently fallen behind year after year, the goal is to close that increasing gap. The next goal is to accelerate the reading process so that they can catch up.

“There is no secret sauce or silver bullet,” Casanova said, “but just really good literacy instruction.” She said the curriculum is broken down and laid out so that a non-teacher can do the instruction, step by step.

“We meet the students where they are,” she noted. “If a third grader is reading at a first-grade level, the child is not getting much out of it. We rely on teachers to refer students who can benefit the most from one-on-one.”

Casanova said that typically at a new school, Reading Partners serves 40 students a year with twice-a-week sessions. At schools they have been in longer, upwards of 60 students are served.

Although nationally Reading Partners has pulled back from working with fifth graders, the Twin Cities organization does extend to this age group. “We do this for a couple of reasons,” Casanova explained. “The Minnesota Reading Corps has its focus on younger children. And after fifth grade, kids go off to middle school. They will not teach them to read in middle school. We hope to invest resources in students before that. Ideally, the younger you can catch the students, the easier it is for them to get caught up.”

Photo left: Twin Cities Reading Partners typically serves 40 students per school in twice-a-week sessions. (Photo provided)

“Our goal is to prepare them to be successful on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, once they get to third and fourth grades. But we really want to give them everything they need to move on to middle school successfully, and that’s why we have kept the program going in fifth grade here.”

She said Reading Partners operates only in Title 1 schools and is working mostly with children of color to narrow the achievement gap. “We call it a literacy achievement gap,” she said. “Reading is everything. You can’t be successful in math if you don’t know how to read. More and more, math is word problems. And if you have a strong science background, you still can’t do science if you can’t read. It is the key to everything.”

Casanova said she wished the program had more volunteers than it needed, but it doesn’t have quite enough. “We have been able to attract 570 in two years, but there are 17,000 kids in Minneapolis and St. Paul who could benefit from the tutoring, so we are just scratching the surface right now. The only things that limit us are funding and human capital, our volunteers.”

She said that Reading Partners pulls out all stops in its recruiting of volunteers. The organization advertises online, and in the fall and right after the holidays it advertises on Facebook. A couple of Americorps employees reach out to the colleges, universities, community organizations and faith-based groups. “We talk to people about what we are doing, and we cast a wide net through the Internet and social media,” she added. “We go to festivals, and open streets and anywhere people are gathered so that we can talk to them.”

Tutors receive 1.5 to 2 hours of initial training. They can do a shadow session if they like to get a sense of how the program works. When they get assigned, the student and the tutor take the time to get to know each other and start building a relationship.

“A big chunk of the lessons are very scripted,” Casanova stated. “Volunteers can follow the script until they have an idea of how everything works.” She said Americorps members serve as site coordinators and can help tutors if they are hitting a wall or don’t understand something about the curriculum. “There is onsite support all the time,” Casanova related.

She said that typically a reading center is an unused classroom with tables and chairs. “We bring in everything else, the curriculum and the books we are using,” she said. “Every session starts with the tutor reading aloud to the student for 10 minutes. They ask the students questions, teaching them that they read to learn and acquire knowledge.”

Casanova said Reading Partners is very data driven and assesses students before they enter the program as a baseline. “We also assess the students midway through the year, so we know that what we are doing is working, or if we need to change things a little bit,” she said. At the end of the year, there is another assessment. “Tutors also keep weekly notes, and the staff looks at the notes to see if there are any red flags.” The students are not only taught to read but to comprehend and enjoy the ability to read.

“We also have two full-time program managers who oversee the Americorps volunteers,” Casanova said. “They are former teachers or have teaching degrees. They know how to look at data, talk with teachers and make sure we are doing our best by the kids.” She said that teachers, principals, and volunteers have all been surveyed, with all groups giving high marks to the program. This year, students were surveyed as well. “We don’t have the results yet, but I’m anxious to see them,” Casanova said.

“The most challenging part is working with schools and school districts, which I understand,” Casanova said. “They get a lot of programs thrown their way. We are not coming at it like we are a savior or a game changer, but we try to build that support from within. We start small and build on our reputation and the difference we are making with the kids. Funding is also always very challenging.”

“But the most rewarding part is the kids,” she continued. “Two years in, we are just seeing those results and hearing stories from tutors about how remarkable it has been to see the students they are working with making progress.”

Volunteer tutor does his part to bridge the ‘opportunity gap’

Colin Anderson was looking for a way to be more meaningful with what he was doing in his life. He had been looking at the school system, and he said that he came across research that indicated 75 percent of educators and administrators and 75 percent of freshmen agreed that the freshmen were not prepared for college.

“Throwing money at free tuition is like throwing money away,” he said. “Where does it start to go wrong?”

Anderson said he did not think there was an achievement gap, as so commonly stated, but rather an opportunity gap. “All these children can achieve, but not all have the same opportunities.”

As he walked his dog one day, he came across Hamline Elementary, 1599 Englewood Ave. “I realized there was a school right here in my neighborhood, and I just reached out to them,” he noted.

“I told them I have a love for reading, and that is what I would be most passionate about.”

So in April 2016, Anderson became one of the volunteer tutors for Reading Partners, an organization dedicated to improving the reading skills of elementary students and bringing children up to their class reading level.

“I did one session, and when the year ended I was waiting to start again,” he said. “I really enjoyed it; it was so much fun.”

He said in August of that year he was ready to sign up again. He was told by Reading Partners not to worry; they let the kids get settled in school before they started up the tutoring.

“I decided on two hours a week,” Anderson said. He said that Sarah, the site coordinator at Hamline, made him much better as a volunteer through her teaching. “Now I am impacting two students, and it is even more rewarding,” he said.

Anderson said he was really blown away with Reading Partners. “I grew up in a small town in Illinois, and my parents were very involved,” he said. But he was tutoring kids who might not be able to get help with homework at home.

“A lot of it is that the parents are not English speakers,” he explained. He cited one example of where most of the communication for the family was done by the second grader he was tutoring or his 8th-grade sister. “The parents are providing, but they are all working,” he said. “Or one dad is a single parent and a personal care assistant. He’s a great guy but has a very intensive job, and there is a limit to what he can do.”

Anderson said the volunteering is very easy. “If you just go in there and read the lesson they provide, it is meaningful. But you build rapport with students, provide the narrative and lesson of a story and want the student to give answers.”

“I am amazed at how much the male students get from having a male role model,” Anderson said. He talked about students he worked with, who improved not only in their reading but their penmanship and behavior.

He said all the volunteers bring their own experiences to the table. “One of the other tutors is bilingual,” he said. “I have tattoos, and the first and third graders I was working with were impressed.”

One of the things that blew him away was how easy the Reading Partners program is. “Any time a problem developed, if it wasn’t something they directly had an answer for, they would get the answer,” he said. “You see how this program works as a community builder itself, and you are glad that’s how somebody knows you.”

“You demonstrate who you are, and what you are there for,” he said. “I’m a big baseball fan, and I wore a baseball jersey and got them asking questions. I have a dog, and they ask to see pictures of him.”

Anderson said if kids get distracted during the tutor read-aloud, he asks them questions. “Just do what’s there in front of you, and it makes you look like this seasoned language teacher.”

He said that sometimes, if a child is having problems, there might be something else going on in his/her life. “Reading Partners will find out what is going on,” he said.

“I cannot endorse this program and this opportunity more for people,” Anderson said. ”We can all find somewhere during the week for an hour. Just arrange it with your workplace and ask if you can come in late one day.”

He said the impact of the program is so apparent and so meaningful. “It is such an amazing way to see what a diverse community we live amongst and can impact.”


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