WMU News

Literacy program helps area youngsters

Feb. 5, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- Reading between the lines can boost your climb up the corporate ladder but simply being a good reader is usually more important in landing a job.

Research shows that students who can't read well by the end of the third grade are more likely to leave school and have fewer job options. Yet literacy experts say nearly four out of 10 fourth-graders fail to achieve even partial mastery of the reading skills needed for school success and only three in 10 read at the proficient level or higher.

Those statistics should start improving in Kalamazoo County, thanks in part to scores of Western Michigan University students who have accepted the America Reads Challenge and become reading tutors.

The challenge program, initiated by former President Bill Clinton in 1997, asks all Americans to participate in ensuring that every child can read well and independently by the end of third grade. Housed in the U.S. Department of Education, it relies on trained volunteer and paid tutors to implement effective, research-based strategies that help children and parents learn to read well.

This past fall, about 26 WMU students worked as paid America Reads tutors. Another 23 were involved in the program during the last full academic year -- 2000-01 -- and tutored a total of more than 250 youngsters.

The WMU students worked on site at the University's six America Reads partner schools: Lawrence Elementary School in Lawrence; Sunset Elementary School in Vicksburg; and Arcadia Elementary School, the Kennedy Center; Lincoln International School and Spring Valley Elementary School in Kalamazoo.

They earned $8.25 an hour in the form of financial aid through the Federal Work-Study Program. WMU and some 3,300 other higher education institutions receive work-study funds, which help close to 1,000,000 students pay for their college educations by providing part-time employment as one component of their financial aid packages.

George Eskro, associate director for student development in WMU's Career and Student Employment Services, says the University began America Reads in 1998 as a joint effort between his office and the Office of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships.

Eskro says as one of the program's first participants, WMU had to start from scratch, developing everything from an application process and a recruitment plan to a training procedure and even partner-school site visit forms.

"We went to a conference to learn how to get started, but there really wasn't any infrastructure," he says. "So we put our heads together and did the nuts and bolts."

The America Reads Challenge has grown tremendously since those early days, significantly adding to the 790 postsecondary participants it had in 1997-98, its first full year. It has built a substantial collection of resources that now includes recruitment brochures, tutor training materials, an interactive listserv, an online directory and a Web site at <www.ed.gov/inits/americareads>.

"What's really neat is that America Reads is well organized today and running smoothly," Eskro says. "It's a positive, cost-effective program, and President Bush has affirmed that he'll continue it."

Eskro adds that the program will continue to grow during the next few years, given a major change that went into effect July 1, 2000. The change makes it a requirement for all higher education institutions receiving work-study funds to use 7 percent of their total annual federal allocation to pay work-study students for community service jobs.

To meet that mandate, an institution must have one or more of its work-study students employed in a family literacy program or employed as a reading tutor for preschool-age or elementary school-age children. For most schools, this means signing up for America Reads.

The program's tie to work-study funding means there aren't any added salary expenses for WMU's six partner schools, which are responsible for providing direct supervision of tutors and appropriate space and support materials.

Equally important, the federal funds come with few strings attached in terms of programming--the partner schools are free to decide what reading services tutors will provide.

"This ensures that we can use our tutors from WMU to augment what we're already doing to meet the needs of our particular students," says Sandy Howe, early childhood coordinator for the Kalamazoo Public Schools, which offers programming for 4-year-olds and many of their parents.

"Our students are too young to learn how to read, so our programs focus on providing a learning environment that is rich in early literacy experiences and on encouraging families to support their child's developing literacy skills," Howe explains.

"It's clear from the research that the most important element in developing early literacy skills is an adult who stimulates a child's interest, builds experiences and responds to a child's curiosity. Our America Reads tutors are helping us do that and are directly influencing the future reading success of our youngest students."

That kind of flexibility is just one of many reasons the America Reads program is so exciting, says Maria E. Gleeson, assistant funds manager in WMU's Office of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships and a co-coordinator of the University's America Reads program.

"It's a wonderful collaborative relationship that translates into a win-win situation all the way around," Gleeson says. "Western wins, the tutor wins, and so do the community, the school and the child being tutored. Everybody gets something important."

WMU serves as a liaison between the schools and the reading tutors it supplies them, taking care of all the work-study and payroll paperwork, plus recruiting, training and monitoring the tutors. The University also keeps the tutors informed and motivated by meeting with them on a regular basis and publishing a monthly newsletter, in addition to guaranteeing quality and strengthening relationships with partner schools by conducting site visits.

In return, Gleeson says, WMU is able to advance its educational and community service goals as well as increase its visibility in the community. Meanwhile, she notes, local schools receive dependable, free help from trained college students, who often are able to relate especially well to their young charges.

Several other advantages accrue for the participating WMU students, who must complete a rigorous application process that includes filling out a four-page application, being interviewed and passing a background check.

Eskro says a key advantage for the tutors is obtaining hands-on job experience that enhances their skills along with their resumes. Plus, the work they do puts them more in touch with the community and gives those majoring in education a foot in the door that might lead to a job after graduation.

"There's also a compassion element," Eskro adds. "Our students learn that individuals and organizations really can make a difference in the lives of kids. We take reading and childhood for granted, but it's hard to do that after you've met a child who literally lives in a cardboard box. Many of our students are seeing a part of life they've never seen before."

But he stresses that the youngsters being tutored benefit most of all.

"They learn to trust and develop relationships as well as to read better," Eskro says. "The important thing is that the program works--we are helping kids to read better. And because we are, a lot of kids are raising their grades."

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 269 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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