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October 6, 2016

Reading Partners comes to the rescue of struggling students

Originally published by The Mercury News.
By Khalida Sarwari

Long after Mount Pleasant Elementary School had let out for the day, 9-year-old Kevin Meza sat at a desk, his brow furrowed as he colored in a green lizard he’d drawn in the middle of a star-shaped piece of paper.

The fourth-grader was assigned to write down his hopes and dreams. He hoped for a pet lizard. Next to him, Max Ryan, a senior at Bellarmine Preparatory School, was busy working on his own star with an outline of his goal to “help others and write a book.”

The Sept. 22 meeting at the San Jose school signified the first of what is intended be many appointments between Kevin and Max throughout the school year. For Max, being there in that classroom alongside his new friend was a part of his first goal.

What brought the two together is Reading Partners, a national nonprofit that recruits community volunteers to tutor K-5 students struggling to read at grade level. For a $25,000 fee, materials and a dedicated reading space, the organization offers trained tutors and a personalized curriculum to bring students’ reading level up to par. In the South Bay, at least 11 schools offer the program, including in San Jose, Sunnyvale and Mountain View.

“It’s been rewarding in ways I didn’t expect,” said Max, a two-year veteran of the program who noted he started merely to fulfill his school’s volunteer service requirement, but decided to return this year of his own volition. “I really connected with my student, and we actually developed a bond,” he said. “I felt genuinely happy to see him and that I could teach him things.”

What sets the program apart from similar ones is data, according to Rob Duran, a program manager who oversees five schools in the San Jose area, including Mount Pleasant.

It’s “the fact that we are so ambitious about using data and tracing students and monitoring students throughout the year,” he said. “The organization is very thoughtful about its professional development. It’s an amazing organization in that they are constantly thinking about how they can become better to meet not only the developing needs of the schools we serve, but also the organization.”

Reading Partners was started in 1999 by community leaders Mary Wright Shaw, Molly McCrory and Jean Bacigalupi at Belle Haven Community School in Menlo Park. In those years, the program went by the name YES Reading and expanded rapidly to other schools in the Bay Area. After receiving a major grant in 2008, the program was renamed Reading Partners and that same year spread south to Los Angeles and later as far east as New York and Washington, D.C. Today, the program operates in 11 states.

Most of the schools the program serves are Title I schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families, Duran said. Because not every school can afford to pay the $25,000 fee—which represents only a fraction of the $90,000 cost to operate the program at each school site—the program places them under no obligation to pay the entire amount. Much of the remainder of the funds come from private donors and federal grants, Duran said. There is no cost to parents, he added.

The students Reading Partners serves come from challenging home lives or households where both parents work and therefore are not able to give their children attention. The program is designed to best help those who are anywhere from a month to 2½ years behind reading level, Duran said. It relies on school principals and intervention counselors to identify the students through an assessment process. An average of about 50 students are chosen at each school, according to Duran. In the South Bay alone, there are about 550 students who benefit from the program every year, he said.

Students are paired up with a community volunteer for biweekly sessions that last a little less than an hour. There are four types of people who typically volunteer for Reading Partners, Duran said. Retirees tend to be the most consistent tutors, followed by high school and college students and working professionals. Duran himself started as a site coordinator four years ago and worked his way up to project manager. “I’ve been blessed to have been able to grow with this organization,” he said.

Carla Neumann is entering her seventh year with Reading Partners and her first year at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in San Jose. She previously tutored at Los Arboles Elementary School and Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School, both in San Jose. Neumann, a San Jose resident, also works for Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, so she’s thinking about cutting back from five to three students this year.

“The tutoring started because I like working with kids,” she said. “I saw a blurb in the paper six or seven years ago, and I looked at that and said, ‘Kids are great; I like working with kids. I’d like to do that.’ The first year I ended up tutoring two or three kids twice a week.”

Neumann starts her tutoring sessions by picking up her students’ files at the school and finding out where they left off. Then she’ll usually pick up her students from their classroom, walk with them to a classroom dedicated for the Reading Partners program and have them pick out a book they want to read. If there’s time left over, she’ll play a game like hangman with them.

“The program is just so easy,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about anything. It’s all structured, so you’re bringing only your enthusiasm and wanting to work with these kids. Everything else is there—the materials, the lessons—so you don’t have to think through it. And it’s fun.”

So fun, she said, that she’s had former students return to hang out with her in the Reading Partners room or just to get a hug. And that probably comes from her approach to reading. “I want children to have fun reading,” she said. “To get them to think reading is fun and not a chore.”

Back in the classroom at Mount Pleasant, Kevin and Max worked on yet one more craft activity before the end of their introductory meeting. They drew the covers of their favorite books. Kevin said his is the 1995 Dav Pilkey book, “The Hallo-Wiener,” about the adventures of Oscar the Dachshund. “It’s funny and kind of scary,” he said.

Though he finds reading challenging sometimes, because “I can’t sound out the words,” Kevin said he enjoys it all the same.

The program is seeking volunteers for the 2016-17 school year. To learn how to become a volunteer, visit

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