Fredessa Hamilton, a technology training manager for National Public Radio, had grown up in the D.C. public schools and thought they could use her help, but she traveled so much that she could not commit to the most popular form of volunteer work: visiting a school each week to read with a child.
Then she discovered a way to mentor not just one student, but two or three at a time and at any spare moment, such as during the 30-minute Metro ride from her office on 14th Street to Shady Grove Station. She became an Internet pen pal. The rapid growth in the D.C. school system of a program called In2Books, as well as its new venture in Chicago, suggests that the U.S. school volunteer and mentor movement is finding ways to increase significantly its reach and influence through the Internet.
Brookland Elementary teacher JoAnn Cornish, who uses In2Books, says students look "forward to receiving the pen pals' letters."
(Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
Nearly 6,000 D.C. elementary school students are discussing specially selected books through correspondence with nearly 3,000 adult pen pals whom they never have met. And the accompanying lessons designed by the nonprofit In2Books have been followed by higher test scores for those students.
"The main thing is to encourage them to continue reading and continue writing," said Hamilton, who uploads her letters to the In2Books Web site for the three D.C. second-graders she mentors. The program delivers her e-mails to the school -- they don't tell her which one -- in personalized envelopes. The student writes a reply longhand that is scanned in and sent to the Web site, where Hamilton can find it.
Teachers say such efforts can change their classrooms. "I love the program," said JoAnn Cornish, who uses In2Books with her 15 third-graders at Brookland Elementary School in Northeast Washington. "They are looking forward to receiving the pen pals' letters, and it makes them write."
Donna Presley, the Brookland principal, said the correspondence with adults motivates children to pay attention in language arts classes. "They say, 'We really need to learn this because we are going to need to use it,' " Presley said.
School volunteer and mentoring programs have grown rapidly in the past decade as state and federal governments have increased the emphasis on improving achievement test scores and as community groups have looked for ways to get citizens involved. Many Washington area adults visit schools weekly to read with students or help with homework. Research indicates that such regular contact with adults leads to fewer absences, better attitudes toward school and fewer discipline problems.
But a 2002 report by the Washington-based research center Child Trends found only small and inconsistent gains in academic achievement after mentoring and noted that is it difficult to find enough volunteers to help all the children that need it. "Many successful professionals, who might make excellent role models for at-risk youth, may feel they are unable to make the required time commitment," the report said.
Cynthia Sturtevant, director of training and technical assistance for MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership, said that there are more than a million mentors working with schools in the United States but that they are reaching only about 2.5 million of the 17.6 million children who might benefit. Such Internet programs as In2Books or e-Buddies help fill that gap, she said.
Cornish praises not only the pen pals but also the extra training that the program provides for teachers. For instance, its reading and writing curriculum helps teachers rate their students' progress and work on weak spots. One of the In2Books teacher guidebooks explains how to measure each child's progress on a six-point scale, or rubric, in seven characteristics: comprehension; thinking about the book; connecting with the pen pal; organization; sentences; word choice/vocabulary; and mechanics. A letter whose only reference to the pen pal is in the salutation gets a 1, while a letter entirely devoted to "a personal dialogue around the book and its themes" gets a 6.
In2Books began not in a university or educational think tank but in the brain of D.C. parent and former entertainment lawyer Nina Zolt. She volunteered in her children's schools and donated books to schools that needed them, but she remained frustrated by the slow pace of progress. In 1998, she tried out her idea for a program with books and pen pals on officials at Teach For America, where she serves on the advisory board, and three young D.C. teachers in the program said they wanted to try it.
Word spread quickly of the excited way in which students were embracing the program. Zolt had teachers in 42 D.C. schools by 2001, and nearly 70 schools this year serving about one-third of all the city's second- through fifth-graders -- the grade levels at which In2Books is used -- plus a few schools in Chicago. Zolt said she is pleased with the program's rapid growth. "When has there ever been a program that has gotten its legs through teacher interest and built upon that?" she said.
The Child Trends study estimates that a quality mentoring program costs $1,000 per student per year. In2Books is spending about $500 per student, using $1.5 million in private contributions and seeking $1.5 million from the school system. An independent analysis of scale score results on the Stanford Achievement Test-Ninth Edition shows that students in In2Books classes are about 9 points ahead of other students in reading.
One of Cornish's students, Mark -- In2Books protects the privacy of students, even from pen pals, by not disclosing full names -- said he has "learned how to write a book report, writing a heading to a letter, and looking up words that I don't know the meaning of in the dictionary." A classmate, Olivia, said she was impatient with the In2Books process of writing the letters longhand. "I would rather type it into the computer," she said. Program officials said they hope to make that possible.
The letters between students and pen pals often stray into personal matters. Hamilton makes sure her students know she was a D.C. kid, too. But the focus is the books. In one exchange provided by the program, a pen pal said that the book "The Cool Crazy Crickets" "reminded me of the clubs I was in as a kid, like the Brownies and Girl Scouts." A third-grade student's response focused on the characters: "Noodles was funny doing silly tricks to become a maskot," she wrote in pencil. "He makes me laugh hard."
The longer the pen pals stay with one child, the more growth they see. Hamilton corresponded with one boy, Ben, for two years. "His first letter was only a half of a page, short and halting," she said. "Then, as the year went by, I would ask questions and get longer answers. By the end of the fifth grade, he was writing me two pages."