For students falling behind, early intervention is key. In fact, children reading below grade level by fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
This is where Reading Partners comes in—a one-on-one tutoring program that helps students who are behind in their reading, housed within the schools themselves. “We bring the community in to work with students,” said Laura Zachar, Executive Director of Reading Partners Los Angeles. By leveraging school resources and local volunteers with an individualized curriculum, the organization has seen 95% of their students improve while in the program.
Nationally, Reading Partners serves 11,000 students, about 720 of which are spread across 13 sites in the greater Los Angeles area. With such a broad operation, Reading Partners needs a lot of help – but they’ve been creative in finding it.
“We have a full-time site coordinator that works at each school,” said Zachar. “We partner with AmeriCorps so that each of our site coordinators is serving a year with us as an AmeriCorps member. In addition to their job here, they spend Fridays training and doing professional development. It’s our goal to set them up for success moving forward.”
Reading Partners also relies on consistent volunteers at each of their sites. In fact, site selection is heavily dependent on a nearby source of volunteers, whether it be a neighborhood, university or other group of volunteers willing to come during the school day. “There are many schools we’d love to be in because there’s a high need, but there just aren’t enough tutors who can volunteer,” said Zachar.
But for the existing sites, volunteers are in demand and put to good use. “Every teacher comes to me every other day asking when I’m adding more students, said Lizzy Bellas, the AmeriCorps site coordinator at Longfellow Elementary in Pasadena. “We can serve way more, but we need more tutors.”
Over the past year, Bellas has seen growth in the students and joy in her volunteers. “The volunteers are so invested. They care so much about the kids making progress, so when they see that progress even just a little bit, they’re so excited and feel so good about what they’re doing because they can tell it’s making a difference.”
Teri is one such volunteer, who found Reading Partners when her neighbor posted about it on the social network Next Door. “My husband and I love to read, fanatically, and our children love to read,” she said. “When I discovered there was a program here to help children who don’t love it yet, I decided this is what I had to do.”
This school year, she’s working with 2nd grader Jonathan who’s struggling with reading comprehension. “We connected right away when the first book he picked out was about animals, and we both love animals,” she said. “I hope that by the end of the year Jonathan will love to pick up a book and re-read it several times, which I do myself.”
Because tutoring sessions are scheduled during the school day, Reading Partners volunteers are often retired and looking for opportunities to give back to their communities. Bellas appreciates how these older volunteers interact with the kids. “The older tutors are so sweet and gentle. Every student needs something different, and sometimes the older tutors are the best fit.”
Because tutors often live in the school district where they volunteer, Reading Partners has made an effort to educate the tutors on public education as well. “We want our tutors to be true community engagement supporters and not just school tutors,” said Zachar. “A lot of our tutors may not have spent a lot of time in the type of schools that we work in, so we take the time to discuss the opportunities and challenges in public education.”
This big-picture approach is also evident in Zachar’s ambitious hopes for the program’s future. “I want Reading Partners to be seen as the premiere literacy program in LA,” she said. “I think we have such a proven, unique model that we have a lot to share with other orgs.”
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