A benchmark program for reading success

Volunteer effort boosts reading scores

— Reading tutor Joshua McKeever and Kenny Community School student Abigail Wilfahrt sat side by side at a desk outside the school’s 3rd-grade classroom.

“When I say, ‘Begin,’ I want you to start reading,” McKeever told Wilfahrt. “Ready? Begin.”

Wilfahrt quietly but confidently read a passage about autumn weather, hardly stumbling at all as she described the change of seasons. After a minute, McKeever told her to stop.

“You did very well,” he said encouragingly.

He pointed out one mistake, a sentence where Wilfahrt added a word not in the text. They ended the session with a high five.

Like most of the Kenny students he had worked with since the beginning of the school year, McKeever said, Wilfahrt was a pretty strong reader.

“These kids were rockin’ out,” he said.

McKeever, an AmeriCorps volunteer, was placed at the school through the Minnesota Reading Corps program.

Launched in 2004 as a prekindergarten program, Minnesota Reading Corps was expanded last year to provide literacy tutoring for children through the 3rd grade.

The program worked for the majority of school children who participated last year. About seven out of 10 met or exceeded reading benchmarks for their grade level by the time they left the program.

Sheila Piippo of the Minnesota Literacy Council said it is essential for students who struggle with reading to be caught up with their classmates by the 3rd grade so they don’t fall behind in other areas.

“The biggest thing is up until 3rd grade kids are learning to read, and after that they’re reading to learn,” Piippo said.

In September, Reading Corps members were still assessing which students needed tutoring in most of the 14 participating Minneapolis public schools, which include Kenny and Whittier International Elementary School in Southwest. For the remainder of the school year, the volunteers will use specific reading exercises, or interventions, to improve students’ reading ability and understanding.

The ultimate goal is to improve each school’s performance on the state standardized reading test known as the MCA-II, or Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. Both Kenny and, to a greater extent, Whittier saw those scores drop between 2006 and 2007.

Reaching the middle

Christina Sheran of the district’s research, evaluation and assessment department said Minnesota Reading Corps was targeted at “tier two” students. They are the middle group of students whose reading skills fall short of the target for their grade level, but who don’t need the additional help of special education or English language-learner classes.

The success of Reading Corps, Sheran explained, was to quickly bring many of the students in that middle group up to speed.

In the fall, students are assessed on five key measures of early literacy, known as the “Big Five.”

The “Big Five” were developed by the National Reading Panel, a body formed in 1997 at the request of Congress and charged with identifying effective, research-based strategies for improving reading instruction in schools. The five measures include: the ability to understand English speech sounds, called phonological awareness; the ability to match letters to their sounds, or phonics; vocabulary; fluency; and reading comprehension.

The children furthest behind in each of those areas are pulled out of class 60–90 minutes each week for one-on-one tutoring.

Sheran said tutors focus their efforts where each individual child needs the most help.

A kindergartener struggling with phonics, for example, might read through a list of capital and lower-case letters, saying each letter’s sound out loud while a tutor follows along. The exercise is repeated over several weeks until the child reads through the list without hesitation.

“After a certain point, we know they’re on track [and] we graduate that child,” Sheran said.

Two Minnesota Reading Corps volunteers are placed in every school. One works primarily as a tutor, and the other recruits community volunteers and trains them to conduct a few specific reading interventions with students.

Last year, there were 125 Reading Corps volunteers placed in Minnesota schools, with the vast majority, about 90, working in prekindergarten classrooms. This year, the program was expanded in grade schools, with about 125 volunteer tutors working with K–3 students across the state.

“We hope to continually expand,” Piippo said. “There are definitely a lot of schools that we need to reach.”

Reaching benchmarks

Sheran said about 70 percent of students enrolled in Reading Corps statewide last year met or exceeded the benchmarks for their grade level by the time they graduated from the program.

“This is the beauty of this: these benchmarks are tied to the MCA’s, so they have a predictive value,” she said.

The district estimates nearly three-quarters of students who reach the Reading Corps benchmarks should also pass the MCA reading exam.

That’s important for school leaders because the MCA test is used to determine if a school has made “adequate yearly progress” toward student achievement goals set under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools that fall short of those goals face sanctions, including the loss of some federal funding.

Whittier Acting Principal Shelley Berken said the program only reached a small number of her students when it was introduced last year. Many Whittier students are not native English speakers and fall outside of the Minnesota Reading Corps target demographic, Berken explained.

Still, she saw the program as “part of a larger picture of

“I think that any time we can help children and help students who need fluency support … then we’re further ahead,” she said.