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August 25, 2015

Reading Partners: TPS students in last year's literacy program on average tripled their rate of learning

Students participating in the Reading Partners program at 15 Tulsa Public Schools elementary accelerated their rate of literacy learning and narrowed the gap between them and their peers last year, according to the organization’s impact report for 2014-2015.

In Tulsa, 97 percent of the 838 students enrolled in Reading Partners last year increased their rate of literacy learning, according to the report. On average, those students tripled their rate of learning for every month they were enrolled in the program.

According to the report, prior to enrolling in Reading Partners at their schools, students had acquired on average half a month of skill for every month of classroom instruction they received. While enrolled in the program, the students gained an average 1.5 months of skill for every month in the program.

The program calculates a student’s month-to-month gain before joining the program by extrapolating an average based on their skill level when they enter. For example, if a fourth grader is coming in with a second-grade reading level, they are estimated to have gained a half year of reading skill per year they were in school.

The report also notes that 85 percent of the students enrolled in the program narrowed the gap between themselves and their grade-level peers in reading, said Elizabeth Vereecke, executive director of Tulsa’s Reading Partners branch.

“That is like a really special number to us,” Vereecke said, “because when we talk about students that come from low-income households and we talk about this achievement gap that we have in our community, if we can close that achievement gap, we’re really bringing these students from low income families on the same playing field as their more advantageous peers and that’s of course what we want to be able to do.”

TPS students entered the Reading Partners program an average of 10 months behind their grade-level peers in reading. Students in the program narrowed that gap by an average of three months, meaning when they left the program, they were an average of only 7 months behind.

Based on previous learning rates, Reading Partners projects that these students would have fallen even further behind without the program, finishing the school year an average of 16 months behind.

The program is expanding to two additional schools this year, and will be at a total of 17 Tulsa Public Schools sites. This year, the cost to the district is $255,000.

Reading Partners is an AmeriCorps affiliate that operates reading centers in under-resourced elementary schools across the country. A full-time Reading Partners staff member guides and supervises community volunteers as they provide one-on-one literacy tutoring to struggling readers. Each student receives two 45-minute sessions per week.

This year, the program will serve about 1,000 students, and will need approximately 1,600 volunteers to do it. Volunteers are asked to commit one or two hours per week, and the tutoring comes with easy instructions for tutor and student.

Michael Lombardo, national Reading Partners CEO, said Tulsa had some of the strongest gains this year, when compared against the other 12 cities that had a Reading Partners program last year.

“Tulsa basically exceeded all of our targets for national performance,” Lombardo said.

Nationally, 90 percent of students increased their rate of literacy through the program last year, and 72 percent of participants narrowed their literacy gap with peers reading at grade level.

TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist said the district is “incredibly enthusiastic” to have Reading Partners in its schools.

What we know is that this is a program that works, she said.

Gist said she hopes the program will continue to expand in the district. The district considers a variety of factors when deciding which sites to expand to, including need and interest from schools.

“We have incredible teachers and great work happening in our schools, but we can’t do this work alone,” Gist said.

Reading Partners serves as supplemental reading intervention that is offered to students, on top of what schools are already doing to improve their students’ reading ability, she said.

Lombardo, who was in Tulsa on Monday, said that part of his message while he is in town is to encourage Tulsans to sign up as volunteers.

“We need Tulsans to show up and roll up their sleeves,” he said.

Vereecke said the program had a 40 percent retention rate of volunteers last year, which is higher than the retention rates in many of the other Reading Partners cities. She attributes this to Tulsa’s strong philanthropic community.

Amy Polonchek, Reading Partners’ vice president for regional and state operations, said she was hooked after serving as a volunteer for the program the first year.

“To have that relationship with that child and see them every week and see that the curriculum really is effective and that they are making progress is very rewarding, and I think feeds into a volunteer wanting to return,” said Polonchek, who was chief of staff at TPS until leaving this summer to work for Reading Partners.

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