Reading & Literacy

‘America Reads’ Is Taking Hold at Grassroots

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 06, 1998 6 min read
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Muriel Krell took it as a personal challenge. When she heard President Clinton’s television address promoting his initiative to enlist an army of volunteers to help children learn to read, she knew she could contribute.

The “America Reads Challenge,” the plan Mr. Clinton formally unveiled in his State of the Union Address last year, would tap a million college students, retirees, and others to help all the country’s children read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade.

“I have been very involved in community services,” said Ms. Krell, a Glen Rock, N.J., resident who promotes community-service projects through her local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. “I thought I should start something in my own community.”

She met with superintendents, teachers, and parents, recruited volunteers, and started matching tutors with children who struggled with their reading.

Now, Ms. Krell counts more than 150 volunteers in her ranks, from 5th graders to senior citizens. They sit down, one-on-one, for an hour each week with children in a school or library and listen to them read. They help them sound out unfamiliar words and question them on what they’ve read. And they do it all with no public money.

“It’s only a matter of using some ingenuity and doing something,” Ms. Krell said last week. “The only reason that this program is successful is that there is such a crying need for it. And there are people with time who are very willing to give of themselves.”

Ms. Krell and her small army are not alone. All but doomed by Congress, Mr. Clinton’s proposal seems to be coming to life in communities and schools. Although literacy agencies have been matching willing community members with children and adults for decades, observers have noted a steady swell in the numbers of reading tutors around the country.

A local version of America Reads that leaders here in Philadelphia kicked off earlier this year has already started to get more books and volunteers into the classroom using private donations and city funds. Other cities have started similar projects. Literacy organizations and education agencies have joined the effort, providing more resources for communities and schools that want to start or expand their own tutoring programs. And people like Ms. Krell have initiated small, community efforts.

Awareness Raised

Hundreds of program coordinators from around the country gathered here last week to learn how to train participants and form partnerships with other community groups as they begin to expand their own programs. Many of the attendees said that literacy has become their top priority.

The Volunteer Center in Arlington Heights, Ill., is using a $10,000 grant from the federal Corporation for National Service to train more of the 6,000 senior citizens who donate time to the agency to help children read better. New York University has assigned more than 700 work-study students to assist teachers in 43 public schools in New York City. More than 900 other colleges and universities are taking advantage of new federal work-study money by assigning thousands more students as reading tutors.

Many observers credit the America Reads proposal with raising the public’s awareness of what many Americans consider a crisis. For instance, some 40 percent of 4th graders were reading below the “basic” level, according to the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of volunteers,” said Rachel Walker, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Reading is Fundamental, a network of local projects that provides books and tutors to help young readers. In the past year or so, RIF’s volunteer corps has grown nearly 10 percent, to 240,000. “A lot of the increase has to do with the renewed emphasis on literacy and public service,” Ms. Walker said. America Reads “has raised awareness and brought [the problem] to the attention of a lot of people who wanted to do something and didn’t know what the needs were.”

Legislation Doubtful

Despite all the activity, the future of America Reads, at least as originally envisioned, is grim. Both Republican lawmakers and reading experts criticized the plan as a duplication of existing literacy programs and argued that the $2.7 billion initially proposed by Mr. Clinton for recruiting and training volunteers could be better spent on improving classroom instruction.

An alternative proposal by U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., called the Reading Excellence Act, would provide $210 million for professional development for elementary teachers. The House approved the measure last fall but the Senate was still considering its options last week.

“Although the legislation is extremely important for being able to carry out some of the key components of America Reads,” said Carol Hampton Rasco, who oversees the program at the U.S. Department of Education, “we’ve never seen the legislation as necessary to carry out the full array of programs.”

Without financial support for tutors in the pending legislation, America Reads is being kept afloat by other initiatives. Congress allocated more than $56 million last fall for the federal community-service program Americorps to provide more reading tutors. And an Education Department policy, which waives the requirement that colleges pay a portion of the wages of work-study students employed as reading tutors, has meant thousands more have joined the effort. The department has also gathered training materials and other resources to help schools and volunteer organizations start or expand tutoring programs.

Too Much To Ask?

But critics say that simply assigning students a tutor, who likely will have little knowledge of or training in how children learn to read, will be ineffective.

“Volunteering is an appropriate role for parents and others who want to help kids,” said Robert W. Sweet Jr., a staff member for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which Mr. Goodling chairs.

“If I were persuaded that untrained or minimally trained volunteers could do the job, I’d be on the bandwagon,” added Mr. Sweet, who founded the National Right to Read Foundation, a nonprofit foundation in The Plains, Va., that promotes phonics education, before joining the committee staff. “But if a professionally trained teacher can’t do it, how can we expect an untrained person to do it?”

He said the increasing volunteer efforts are welcome, but are not the key to solving children’s reading problems.

Without more federal funding, the Education Department’s Ms. Rasco said, efforts to train the tutors may fall short."The legislation would be the watering and fertilizing of the seedbed that is needed for the [program] to grow.”

Some researchers who originally questioned the prudence of pouring billions of dollars into tutoring programs without first addressing the need for teacher training said the response from the public may be a positive step toward solving youngsters’ reading problems. But it will be difficult, they said, to calculate the tutors’ impact.

“Any resources in the schools are perceived as somewhat positive, but it would be nice to know if [the tutors] are used effectively and that students are benefiting from them,” said Barbara A. Wasik, a reading researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

But Ms. Krell, the reading volunteer, said she doesn’t need a formal evaluation to see the results of her New Jersey program. Volunteers tell her often about students’ progress. She has received dozens of calls from potential tutors and comments from parents and teachers about improvements in students’ reading ability.

Ms. Krell has even made a deal with local recreation officials to offer poolside tutoring for children who might otherwise fall behind during summer vacation.

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