"I GOT THIS!"
When nine-year-old Nathan arrived at Reading Partners, he didn’t like to read, and he hated to read aloud. Reading, said executive director Karen Gardner, caused Nathan a lot of insecurity and fear.
But just one year later, Nathan was asked to read in front of an audience of 200 at the White House. Karen recalled the night.
“Are you nervous?” a staff member asked Nathan as he prepared to speak.
Clothed in a business suit, a confident Nathan beamed with excitement and replied, “No, I got this!”
Nathan’s story is not unique to students who work with Reading Partners, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combatting illiteracy and helping students become lifelong learners.
“Reading is the foundation for everything else in school,” Karen said. “In third or fourth grade, teachers aren’t focusing on teaching kids how to read. They are expected to already know how. We want to make sure that our students are proficient, so that they can master the other subjects. Learning to read is critical for being an independent learner and being successful in school and in life.”
Eighty-seven percent of students who go through the program are able to narrow their achievement gap in reading, and nearly 100 percent accelerate their rate of learning.
Reading Partners pairs K-4 students who are anywhere from half to two-and-a-half grade levels behind in reading with reading tutors. Volunteers work with students one-on-one until they become skilled readers. These volunteers work with students weekly, using individually prepared lessons.
“You just have to want to help,” said Alexis Holdman, who has been volunteering with Reading Partners for the two-and-a-half years. “The kids are just looking for someone who wants to work with them, and who will try to relate to them, and listen to them. It’s a great challenge.”
A native of Denver, Colo., Alexis said she was a newcomer to DC, looking for “things to do to fill my time.” A friend at a book club referred her to Reading Partners, and she became involved soon thereafter.
Despite some initial nerves, Alexis quickly developed a strong rapport with her students. One even sent her a thank you card during the summer. “It just felt really good,” she said.
Reading Partners has branches in eight states and the District of Columbia. The DC branch pairs volunteers with students from 15 Title 1 schools.
Each student, Karen said, is given an individualized plan.
“The goal is to work towards proficiency. Volunteers help students work on a specific skill each lesson. If students don’t pass that skill, they can repeat the lesson until they do.”
“Our hope,” she added, “is that each student would become like Nathan and say, “I got this!” in any situation.”
Three questions with executive director Karen Gardner
What are your hopes for your volunteers?
We hope that it doesn’t end with the one-on-one tutoring session. The literacy challenge in America is huge. We hope that we are building champions for this issue. Volunteers unlock incredible opportunity for our students.
What new programs, if any, are you either piloting or planning?
We are focusing on continued growth and expansion with the DC public schools. Recently, we were selected as a priority partner of the Empowering Males of Color initiative. We hope that partnership will open up additional volunteer pools.
What kinds of volunteers are you looking for?
We have volunteers from all walks of life. Some volunteers are teenagers. Others are retired businessmen or working professionals. We are especially looking for people with flexible schedules. Every volunteer is a piece of the puzzle.
Three questions with volunteer Alexis Holdman
What is the book, if any, that made you fall in love with reading?
There are a couple of books that I remember. One is a "Wrinkle in Time, (another is) "Jubilee." I remember loving the story. (Also,) "The Diary of Anne Frank." Given the opportunity, I would always go back to them. The feeling stays with you.
What’s your hope for the students you tutor?
That they will continue to read, that they will find it enjoyable, and something that becomes a part of them. That they will see it as more than schoolwork and something that they have to do—that they will find enjoyment with it. And that they’ll share that with friends and family.
What would you say to anyone considering volunteering with RP?
It’s a great way to share you time, to give back to the community, to give back to kids. It’s something very instructive. Reading is such an important skill. It’s just so basic. If you can share it with a child, it can make a change. I’m glad that I found RP. It’s rewarding because it is something that’s so important. I highly recommend it.
WHY I VOLUNTEER:
Before I learned to read, I was at the mercy of others to read to me. I didn’t like that so much so I insisted on being taught so that I could do it on my own... I was five years old. My sister taught me while we were commuting to and from school with our mom, who was a teacher.
Once I learned how to read, I loved it. My sister is two years older than I am, and I would read whatever she read as soon as she was done with it. My dad once took the TV away for a year as punishment for bad grades (my sister’s, not mine) and I barely realized it was gone. I would often read with the help of a flashlight late into the night.
I still hate to come to the end of a really good book. If I let myself, I would lose days just to read a book or two a week. When I was young, I would re-read books multiple times (I’ve read "Roots" three times) to re-experience how good I felt losing myself in a particularly engaging story.
I realize that not everyone has the same passion for reading (especially in the age of technology), but I can’t imagine not enjoying reading at all. I also can’t imagine seeing books as the enemy, or boring, or something connected to not feeling good about myself. But for children who have fallen behind their grade levels, or aren't doing well with reading comprehension, it’s easy for them to decide that reading isn’t their thing.
Everything connected to learning on any level requires reading. Whether it’s on a tablet, a computer or a book, reading is the door to knowledge, and every state in the nation has large percentages of students who are unable to read at grade level. I want to have a hand in reducing that number.
I was drawn to Reading Partners because the time commitment is easy (45 min once a week), and you get to work one-on-one with a student for an entire semester/school year. You follow a simple curriculum and get to see the child progress as you move through the different exercises. And the best part is that they allow the kids to choose which books they would like to read, and have a program for taking home books to read.
And I’m learning things too. Or rather re-learning things I‘ve forgotten along the way. There’s nothing quite like the pressure of having to try to remember how to define a marsupial to a 4th grader and drawing a complete blank on what it is even though you KNOW what it is!
About the Author: Saranah Holmes is the founder of the Daily Do Good. When she's not busy turning DDG into the greatest thing ever to happen to the nonprofit community, or volunteering with Reading Partners, Saranah enjoys curling up with a good book.... anything from chick lit to memoirs. The best perk of any job she's ever had was when she worked on the Hill and could order any book she wanted from the Library of Congress...hand delivered and picked up with one phone call :)