Reading Partners puts kids on the right page

November 14, 2012

In a house, with a mouse, here, there or anywhere, Leslie Mercedes will read Dr. Seuss.

The first-grader at Brightwood Elementary School in Northwest Washington tapped each word with her pencil as she polished off “Green Eggs and Ham.” “Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-Am!” She turned to her tutor, Carol Newman.

“We finished the whole book!” Leslie said.

“You finished the whole book,” Newman replied.

Twice a week, Leslie leaves class to read aloud with Newman, a freelance writer, in this small office on Brightwood’s ground floor. Quotations about learning from the likes of Malcolm X, Arthur Schopenhauer and Oprah Winfrey line the walls, handwritten in colored marker. Five or six desks crowd in among shelves stocked with titles from “The Zombie Zone” to “Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope.”

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Leslie is one of 450 Washington students who will participate this year in Reading Partners, a national volunteer tutoring program that aims to improve literacy among students whose reading skills are six months to 2 1 / 2 years behind grade level.

The program recently received $30,000 from Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund that supports D.C.-area nonprofit organizations with programs focused on increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.

Each of Washington’s 11 Reading Partners centers has a site coordinator recruited through AmeriCorps. At Brightwood, that’s Cameron Lineberger. A typical day for him involves circulating through the school to check in with classroom teachers, overseeing new volunteers as they work with students, and tutoring two or three beginning readers himself.

The best part of his job, he said, is watching students gain confidence — not just in their reading skills, but also in their social interactions.

“When you have 45 minutes to sit with an adult who isn’t related to you, isn’t being paid . . . I think kids take off naturally when they have this one-on-one relationship with an adult,” Lineberger said.

Eighty-seven percent of the Washington students enrolled in Reading Partners last year narrowed their achievement gap, regional executive director Lisa Lazarus said. Seventy-eight percent of students who began the year with low self-confidence also increased their confidence by the end of the year, according to surveys of their classroom teachers.

Program manager Jen Watson, who oversees six Reading Partners sites in the District, said she knows students are making progress when she hears they’ve been voluntarily reading aloud outside Reading Partners’ walls, whether in class or to their families.

“I had a student who would tell me he was reading to his turtle,” Watson said.

Students typically land in Reading Partners after being referred by their classroom teachers. The volunteers range from high school students who need community service hours to working professionals who can squeeze a 45-minute tutoring session into their lunch hours.

Mel Radowitz, a lawyer for the AARP, said after his first tutoring session at Brightwood that by the end of the lesson, his student was already sounding out words with less hesitation.

“She was challenged but not overly challenged,” he said, beaming. “That’s a delight to see.”

The Reading Partners curriculum makes tutoring easy even for people who have no prior teaching experience, said Newman, who has been volunteering at Brightwood since its site opened in 2010. For each lesson, tutors get a laminated card listing the materials they’ll need and the tasks students must complete.

“You really just need to be a person who loves to read and enjoys working with children, and the rest is provided to you,” Newman said.

Since Leslie started working with Newman, the 6-year-old said she has read “Dr. Seuss books, a lot of them, and some other books about magic, and circus books too.”

But “Green Eggs and Ham” is her favorite title. Asked how many times she had read it, she held up three fingers.

It’s one of Newman’s favorites, too. The tutor remembers flipping through it over and over decades ago when she was learning to read.

“Some things are timeless, and Dr. Seuss is one of them,” Newman said.

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