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March 31, 2015

Zendesk's corporate volunteerism benefits young readers

Nearly three months after the basement reading center at Tenderloin Community School (TCN) was flooded in the “Great Storm” of 2014, the site reopened for after-school tutoring. During a Wednesday afternoon session, sprawled across the school cafeteria, seven pairs of tutors and students sit reading and learning together.

One pair in particular, quickly and seamlessly start their lesson after their three month hiatus. Without missing a beat, Ryan Crosbie, a Zendesk employee, and Carly*, an energetic fourth-grader with pink and white polka dot leggings and a long braid, take their positions at the long cafeteria table. The two delve into a lesson on sequence of events while reading a short book on César Chavez. Their discussion goes something like this:

Ryan: So Carly, what happened first?

Carly: The farmers picked fruit.

Ryan: What kind of fruit?

Carly: Mangoes…?

Ryan: No, you’re thinking of the Stellaluna book. They were picking…

Carly: Grapes!

Ryan: Then what happened?

Carly: César saved the day!

Ryan: But how?

Carly: He helped the farmers go on a strike.

Ryan: And then…?

Carly: The farmers got their money!

After their lesson, they start playing “Handman” – a variation of the popular word game Hangman, only missed letters result in fingers of a hand, rather than a gallowed man, being drawn. Ryan gets stumped when Carly picks a word with no vowels – TCS, her school’s name. When he protests, she asks, “what’s an acronym?”

The next round Carly stumps him again – this time with a surprise two-word phrase.  “She beats me more than I’d like to admit. That’s probably why she likes it,” Ryan said.

Ryan started volunteering as a substitute reading partner about two years ago. Since then, he has committed to tutoring two sessions each week with Carly. After he began working at Zendesk, he brought the opportunity to his peers at the office.

Zendesk was the first recipient of a Community Benefit Agreement with the city–considered an exemplary company in the community for its compliance with this agreement and its culture of community involvement. Not to mention, the company gets tax breaks in exchange for community service.

Whether it’s volunteering at the senior center, teaching at the tech lab, cooking meals at St. Anthony’s, or tutoring at Reading Partners, Zendesk employees find a range of ways to connect with their local community.

Last year, 99% of Zendesk employees were involved in some form of volunteer activity

Ryan especially enjoys working with Reading Partners because of the one-on-one nature of the program and the opportunity to work with the same student week after week.

The curriculum structure provides a comprehensive progression from one lesson to the next and effectively targets the highest-need students. As a high school student, Ryan had worked as a paid tutor, but didn’t quite feel the same gratification as he does now being a reading partner. Ryan admits, because families had to pay for the program, it didn’t always reach its target demographic. “I think [Reading Partners] is a different approach that can scale,” he says.

zendesk_blog_2From Carly’s test scores alone, it’s apparent that her literacy skills have grown dramatically since she started working with Ryan. She entered Reading Partners as a third grader last year reading 1.6 years behind grade level (at a beginning second-grade level). Her mid-year assessment results showed Carly reading 2.5 times faster than her monthly growth rate before enrolling in Reading Partners, gaining about 1.5 months’ equivalent of literacy growth each month of the school year.

“She impresses me with the things she knows. She’s always achieving something to get to that next level,” says Ryan.

Carly’s progress is reflected in the kinds of books she likes to read now. When the two started working together, Carly loved Dr. Seuss books, but couldn’t read them–partly, Ryan notes, because half of the words are made up. Despite the challenging words, Carly was able to successfully read a passage from Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax out loud during last December’s winter reading recital.

As an avid reader, Ryan finds it helpful to get Carly engaged in the books they read together. During their tutor-read-aloud sessions, he holds the book close to her to keep her attention focused on the text. He reads with animation, using different voices to separate dialogue from descriptive sentences.

Last week, Carly asked Ryan, “Have you ever been an actress?”

“No, Carly,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve never been an actress.”

Before she was enrolled in Reading Partners, Carly thought reading was hard. Today, Carly says reading is her favorite subject in school.

*Note: Student’s name has been changed to comply with student privacy policies.

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