As a college administrator, Greg Brewis learned the odds.
“If a child isn’t proficient in reading by third grade, their chances of going to college are much lower,” he said. “That’s a tragedy for the child and the community.”
For decades, schools have tried to find ways to help young students who start school behind catch up. Classroom time simply isn’t there for one-on-one instruction, so the effort often involved outsiders.
The Tacoma School District and the Tacoma Community House have partnered in an effort to find and train volunteers to tutor children individually – one tutor, one student – for 45 minutes each week at one of the schools involved.
The results, for dozens of first- through third-graders at McCarver and Roosevelt elementary schools, have been a delight. For the students and the tutors.
“They make a huge difference, and not just in reading,” second-grade teacher Kelly Carlile said. “They give the children another adult role model, they spend one-on-one time with one another each week. You see the kids’ confidence grow.”
The children involved aren’t unintelligent or unmotivated.
“In many cases, they’ve grown up in single-parent homes and have never been read to,” said Liz Savitz, who helps run the Read2Me program. “They haven’t had books in their homes. Some haven’t been to kindergarten.”
That’s a key for many children, because most learn their ABCs there.
“If they don’t know the alphabet when they come to first grade, they’re behind,” Savitch said. “If they don’t read well, they may feel they’re not as smart as their classmates. This is a safe place for children to ask questions.”
Volunteers don’t need to be reading specialists. All they really need is commitment.
“The main requirement is making a commitment of time throughout the year. We provide the training and the materials, the volunteers choose the time of day they’re available during school hours,” said Liz Dunbar, executive director of Tacoma Community House.
There are 100 tutors now working in the program. With plans to expand next month into two more schools – Mann and Manitou Park elementaries – the program is looking for another 100.
What can volunteers expect?
“This is my second year. I had two third-graders and one second-grader last year,” tutor Ruth Kalles said. “It’s fulfilling to see them improve so quickly. I like to help make a difference, and this has been a wonderful experience.”
For Brewis, who retired this year, tutoring has given him a surprising payback.
“This is like early intervention. It’s great for the children and the community,” Brewis said. “It’s my first activity in retirement. It’s fulfilling – and I’ve got a new friend.”
During a recent tutoring session, Brewis was working with a first-grade girl. A stranger, seeing how at ease they were together, might have thought them grandfather and granddaughter.
It’s part of the program Liz Savitch sees played out again and again.
“It means so much to these children that every week there’s an adult who works only with them,” she said. “On days when a tutor can’t make it – for whatever reason – I’ve seen children tear up. We get them someone else to work with them for that day.
“But the relationship is critical, and special.”
Tacoma Community House trains each tutor, provides all the materials required for work at the school. There are books, games, exercises designed to let children develop at their own pace.
At times, there are 10 tutors and 10 children seated at small tables in the classroom working one-on-one.
“In the late ’80s, a reading program began as SMART with a teacher at McCarver Elementary, and the first volunteers were all from St. Joseph Hospital,” said Karen Thomas, the volunteer services manager with Community House.
“Thirteen years ago, it was called Werlin Reading and now it’s become the Read2Me project. Some tutors have been here since the beginning – 20 years or more. We think it makes a difference, and so do the teachers.”
At Roosevelt, Kelly Carlile has seen her students improve through Read2Me time – and has observed the enthusiasm that produces.
“Their reading skills develop more quickly – they comprehend what they’re reading, they read more words per minute,” she said. “How much do the kids love it? The other day we were making gingerbread houses when the time came for tutoring, and the kids in the program all left in the middle of making the houses.
“There’s no stigma. The kids who aren’t in the program would like to be.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com