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November 26, 2009

Volunteer Tutors Lead the Way on Path to Reading

Kasha Merritt, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Menlo Park’s Belle Haven Elementary School, loves to read. She’s halfway through Marty Crisp’s “White Star: A Dog on the Titanic” and is about to start the Roald Dahl classic “Matilda.”

Kasha says when she was in the second grade, “all I could read was kindergarten stuff.” But then, she adds with the biggest of smiles, “I got a lot better. I can keep on reading and still understand the words.”

What changed Kasha’s world was Reading Partners, a South Bay nonprofit dedicated to improving the literacy levels of low-income students by matching them with volunteer tutors.

During this school year, Reading Partners will reach 850 students at 16 schools throughout the Bay Area with more than 1,000 active volunteers (from high school students to retirees) staffing reading centers that emphasize comprehension, fluency, expression and the sheer joy of reading.

Like all students in the Belle Haven program, Kasha spends 90 minutes a week after classes at the clean and neat reading center with a volunteer. In Kasha’s case, that’s Marie-Jo Fremont, a Palo Alto business consultant who worked for more than two decades at Hewlett-Packard before striking off on her own.

Fremont has been reading with — and serving as a mentor for — Kasha since the third grade. “She’s taught me more than just reading,” Kasha says. “She’s my friend.”

For her part, Fremont says the decision to volunteer was an easy one. “I have two kids, one in high school and one in college, and when they were younger, they needed help.” So when she became a consultant and “could take some time to do these kinds of things,” she signed on with Reading Partners.

“You can see the students discover things they might not have had access to ordinarily,” Fremont says, noting that the big breakthrough for Kasha was the Lois Lowry book “Number the Stars.”

“For me,” Fremont says, “education is just so very important.”

Reading Partners would like to help more students like Kasha at more schools. Currently, there are more than 30 schools in Santa Clara County alone that are lined up to become partners with the program. And Wish Book readers can help.

A donation of $10 will purchase two new books for the library at a reading center. A gift of $25 will cover the cost of supplying a student with books for Reading Partners’ Taking Reading Home program, where participants who do well are allowed to keep books to build a library at home — with the hope of enticing their siblings to become interested in reading.

A donation of $50 will cover the cost of a student work station for one center; $200 will purchase a shelf that displays books so that their colorful, engaging covers — not their spines — beckon young readers.

The impact of the program on students’ lives and imaginations can be seen in the way they eagerly come to tutoring sessions — and in how their skills have improved.

“After enrolling in Reading Partners, most children undergo a dramatic change,” says Allison Cohen, a development associate for the program. “Eighty-seven percent of students accelerate their rate of learning and the average student gains an entire grade level for every 25 hours they spend in the program.”

Kasha says she now finds schoolwork easier. She devoured three books from the center’s lending library over the summer and re-read others. She even spends time reading with her cousin Coco.

Kasha adds, “I am very good at poems.” She then proudly recites the first words of one: “Until I walked into the light, I was in the dark and I was very scared.”

Listening, Fremont smiles proudly and says, “This is why I make the commitment. We use this as a learning experience, not just a reading experience.”

–Charlie McCollum, Mercury News

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