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December 13, 2008

Learning a love of reading

On the day that Angel Calderon’s reading tutor, Susan Tjoflat, was getting to the words that would change an 11-year-old boy’s life — “Harry, you’re a wizard” — the life of the shy 8-year-old who drew as he listened to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is changing, too.

Volunteer tutors from Reading Partners, who come to his Santa Clara school and spend 90 minutes a week with him, are helping him develop the skills to unlock the world around him.

Reading Partners (formerly YES Reading) is a South Bay-based, nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering students through literacy and bringing community members to underserved public schools.

From a half-dozen schools two years ago, by January Reading Partners will have programs involving 500 students and 500 volunteers in 17 schools.

Not just any schools. Reading Partners focus on schools with low-income students, places where 75 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Reading Partners works with students who are referred by their teachers. The students are reading at least one grade level below expectation. After assessment, students enter the curriculum-based program and work one-on-one with tutors in reading centers that operate at the elementary school.

By Reading Partners assessment, a student can gain a grade level in reading after 30 hours of the program.

Tutors range from retirees, to working people with flexible schedules, to parents whose children are in school, to high school students who tutor after school.

Angel’s tutor, Tjoflat of Los Gatos, is a mother of two young children who was looking for a volunteer opportunity that would help her make an impact for her time invested.

“Reading opens so many doors,” says Tjoflat. Helping students develop life skills is rewarding. And she loves to read.

After the session began with Tjoflat reading to Angel, it was his turn. The book: “Mr. Putter & Tabby Fly a Plane.”

He read confidently, pausing at some new words for him — biplane, tulip.

Later, these words would be used in sentences and Angel would have a chance to use his artistic skills to draw pictures illustrating them.

Kim Acker of Cupertino, who volunteered for the program last year and became its part-time director of communications, found the power of helping kids read: “It took my heart,” she says.

Wish Book readers could help Reading Partners by providing some furnishings for its reading centers, which are in unused classrooms.

Couches ($350 each), chairs ($200), beanbag chairs ($30 each), colorful rugs ($100), andreading lamps ($65) would provide a comfy spot for students and tutors to begin their sessions. The first 10 minutes of the session, as was Angel’s, is devoted to hearing your tutor read to you.

Book display stands ($165 each), like you’d see a school library, would invite students to explore books by first getting excited about looking at their covers. And a few big faux plants ($65 each) and posters ($5 each) would make for a cheerier, homelike place to read.

Reading Partners can quote the statistics — California has the worst literacy rate among low-income students, 47 percent of schools fell short of API targets, 1,441 schools were placed on program improvement, 89 percent of students in low-income communities don’t read at proficient levels; and 65 percent lack basic reading skills.

Numbers. Daunting numbers.

But not unsurmountable, if, like Reading Partners, you take them one child at a time.

Michele Jurich, Mercury News

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