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April 25, 2010

Reading program helps local students improve their skills

About half the students at Carolyn Wentzel Elementary School in the Pocket area are proficient readers, but some of the stragglers are rapidly catching up.

All of the 29 students signed up for Reading Partners have made significant gains this year, said principal Judy Montgomery, who considers the tutoring program the most successful reading intervention at the school.

Seven months after the South Bay nonprofit entered the Sacramento market with support from local business owners and their employees, the area is outperforming the Bay Area and the Los Angeles region.

“That’s very unusual for a first-year program,” said Michael Lombardo, chief executive officer at Reading Partners. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has “put emphasis on volunteerism. All the pieces have come together and we’ve met all our goals.”

The program provides 182 low-income students at five schools with one-on-one tutoring from a group of about 200 trained volunteers. Mid-year data show 92 percent of the students have increased their learning rate, 84 percent have narrowed the gap to grade-level proficiency and, on average, students gained two months of skills for every month of the program.

Founded in 1999 by three community leaders in Menlo Park, Reading Partners strives to improve children’s literacy and life opportunities. The program is funded by corporations, foundations and individuals.

It came to Sacramento after Christopher Nelle at Union Bank reviewed an application for funding and was intrigued.

“I have developed a keen interest in trying to get to people early in their lives to give them tools so later in their lives, we aren’t looking for another kind of grant to help them,” said Nelle, a senior vice president and regional manager for Union Bank. “I believe education is the best way to do it.”

Nelle approached Reading Partners and was told if he would chair an advisory board and raise money, the program would come to Sacramento. He raised $150,000 from local corporations and individual donors, and the program kicked off in September.

Trained, supervised volunteers are paired with students for one-on-one instruction twice a week that uses curriculum developed in partnership with Stanford University. The program is offered at five local elementary schools: Carolyn Wentzel, Bret Harte Elementary in Curtis Park, Thomas Edison in Arden Arcade, Skycrest in Citrus Heights and Williamson in Rancho Cordova.

“What they do is measurable,” Nelle said. “With so many other programs, you give money to a feel-good initiative, but at the end of the day, you have no idea how well it works.”

“In every community in California, and Sacramento is no exception, education is the bedrock upon which business is built,” Lombardo said. “The scary thing is that testing scores in California are failing at the most basic level: learning to read. Two-thirds of students are not reading at grade level and among low-income students, it’s 90 percent.”

The program took off in Sacramento with support from business leaders at Union Bank, Sutter Health, VSP, SAFE Credit Union and others. Companies provide financial support or volunteers, or both.

Supporters want to expand the program to two more local schools next year, but that means raising the $150,000 required to continue the current program plus $30,000 for expansion, Nelle said.

“… We need money and volunteers,” Nelle said. “I can’t offset one with the other. We need both.”

–Kathy Robertson, Sacramento Business Journal

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