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November 18, 2014

It takes a Village to Raise a City of Readers


The familiar aphorism, “It takes a village to raise a child” must have been on the minds of Oakland voters when 75.8% chose to support local measure N, a parcel tax that will earmark funds for Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to more fully prepare its students for college and careers.

However, what if Oakland residents could do more than cast a ballot to support their students? What if, by committing just one hour per week, any community member could help a struggling reader in elementary school double his or her rate of literacy growth?

Reading Partners, an Oakland-based literacy nonprofit, believes it takes a village to raise a city of readers. The organization works with struggling K-5 readers in Title I schools–those where a majority of students are identified as low-income–by pairing them with community volunteer tutors armed with a research-based curriculum at in-school reading centers. Harnessing the power of volunteerism, they provide one-on-one tutoring, the gold standard in early literacy intervention.

Last year, in the Oakland Unified School District, 74% of economically disadvantaged 4th graders could not read at grade-level proficiency.[1] Fourth grade reading proficiency is a critical determinant of future academic success: students who lack proficient reading skills by then often fall irremediably behind in all academic subjects.[2]

Emma Laz-Hirsch, a first-year teacher at East Oakland PRIDE Elementary, is witnessing this phenomenon among her fifth-graders where the majority of her students fall between first and third grade proficiency. She explained that with classroom instruction alone, fifth grade students with such a severe literacy gap often only gain about one month of literacy growth throughout the year.

“That’s outrageous,” she said.

Woman tutor with 2 girls

Emma had previously worked with Reading Partners as a site coordinator at Brookfield Elementary in East Oakland and then as Reading Partners’ first Community Engagement Manager, where she recruited local volunteers, including a number of officers from the Oakland Police Department, to become one-on-one tutors.

In the past few years she has worked in Oakland education, Emma has seen rapid change. Urban development, skyrocketing rent costs, and new industry movement pose challenges that threaten to bifurcate the city along socioeconomic lines. However, she believes that Reading Partners’ community-oriented model could become a transformative tool for the city.

“If there was a really well-coordinated effort to bridge that gap, such as having all residents contribute in a real, concrete, tangible, measurable way, like working one-on-one with a child for 45 minutes a week, then you would see an incredible impact on a city-wide level,” she said.

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Marcella Vieraitis is also a former Reading Partners site coordinator who became inspired to pursue her teaching credential. She is now a first-grade teacher at Daniel Webster Elementary School in San Francisco, the same school she served as a Reading Partners site coordinator. She says Reading Partners’ dedication to creating a safe learning environment and cultivating community inspired her to become an educator.

Reading Partners also inspires others to get involved in the fight for literacy, both inside and out of education.

Brittany Love, an AmeriCorps VISTA member working at OUSD has seen the impact of getting local government employees involved with literacy support. So far, she has helped eight employees of the City of Oakland become tutors.

Poor literacy rates, Love says, often indicate other educational challenges. In Oakland schools where 10% or less of students read proficiently, she frequently observes a higher rate of behavioral issues, attendance problems and chronic absences. According to Brittany, “If you can get the kids to read on their reading level and get excited about school, all the other [problems] will have a domino effect. Reading is the glue that holds everything together.”

Even among community members who may have no direct connection to education, Reading Partners still provides opportunity for significant local impact.With their program, anybody over the age of 14 with an eighth-grade reading level can be an effective tutor.

Thanks to the support of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation alongside Reading Partners’ committed corps of tutors and site coordinators, at least 650 East Bay readers will receive one-on-one tutoring this year.

If you or someone you know would like to make a difference, click here and help Oakland become a literacy-rich city for all of its students.

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Originally featured on the Kenneth Rainen Foundation “Education” blog:

Footnotes: [1] California Department of Education. 2013 STAR Test Results. Oakland Unified School District. Retrieved from [2] Stanovitch, Keith E. (1986). “Matthew effects in reading: some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy,” Reading Research Quarterly, XXI/4. – See more at:

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