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July 29, 2015

Jessica's Story: Changing kids' lives, one hour at a time

Kate Bradshaw

When Professor Jessica Hurless was asked if she would be willing to have a Reading Partners representative speak to her Skyline Community College class about opportunities to volunteer, she hesitated at first. Past experiences with service-learning programs had left her scrambling to get her students motivated to volunteer. However, it didn’t take much to convince Jessica this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

The presentation Reading Partners gave to her class was so compelling, in fact, she decided to sign up. She figured, volunteering an hour a week was probably doable.

Now, nearly a year later, Jessica volunteers three hours of each week and has recruited 12 additional student volunteers from her classes.

This year alone, Jessica and her students have contributed a combined 384 hours to helping kids learn to read. – That’s the equivalent of approximately $10,320 worth of in-kind value added. If Reading Partners had an MVP award, Jessica would likely be its 2014-15 recipient.

The tutoring snowball effect

When Jessica began tutoring Marcus*, a kindergartener at Los Cerritos Elementary School, he didn’t know his alphabet. Together, they started working through the Reading Partners emerging readers curriculum–specially designed to practice the most rudimentary reading skills and set students like Marcus up for success.

Jessica had an easy way with kids, which she attributes to her mother who was an elementary school teacher. She says her teaching style is interactive.

“I try to make it fun and hands-on,” said Jessica, adding, it’s imperative to engage students with activities that interest them.

Jessica and Marcus worked together every week and in less than four months Marcus made remarkable progress. After he mastered the alphabet, he went on start reading words.

It was only a matter of time before he started forming sentences and at the end of the year he could read full books. His growth was so rapid that he quickly surpassed grade level and said goodbye to Jessica. Her job was complete.

That moment, Jessica said, was bittersweet. She was proud of his gains, but would miss tutoring him each week. She still sees him in the halls sometimes. On a good day, Marcus will run into the reading center to share his latest accomplishments. Most recently, he came running in to tell Ms. Jessica that he had been selected as student of the month.

When Jessica saw that there was still a waiting list of students who needed tutors, she decided to add an additional session each week. She was paired with Alex*, who was reading six months behind grade level. When she learned that Alex loves to play soccer, she devised a “vocabulary soccer” game. For every new word he spelled correctly he would get a point, and by the end of the session the number of points would determine the number of goals he was allowed to shoot on the school soccer field after their session.

Alex ended the year five months closer to his grade level.

One day, Jessica and Alex were playing vocabulary soccer together and another student, Danny*, came into the reading center, visibly upset. His tutor had quit volunteering, and he needed a new tutor. Seeing how distressed he was, Jessica volunteered to do a make-up session with him that day. After their session, she committed to carve out yet another hour in her week to tutor Danny.

Danny has also now caught up to grade-level proficiency. Danny said his favorite thing about Reading Partners is that he “gets to learn reading.”

Now Jessica has been reassigned to work with Danny’s little brother, Timothy*. Timothy explained with a gap-toothed smile that his favorite part of Reading Partners is that, ”When I’m done with a book that I bring, I get a sticker, and if I get lots of stickers, I get a prize.”

Despite her professorial workload, Jessica makes her Reading Partners students a priority.

“There’s no question,” she said. “If you can see [these kids], and see how willing [they] are to work, you would always say yes.”

Passing on the opportunity

At the start of the new semester, she eagerly awaited Reading Partners’ presentation to her new classroom full of college students.

She admitted with a self-effacing blush that she teared up during the presentation. When she heard the rate of third grade literacy proficiency was the best indicator of future prison capacity needs, she felt shocked and overwhelmed at the need for additional student supports. Although prisons don’t expressly use third grade reading proficiency to determine future capacity needs, there is certainly a heartbreakingly high correlation between the two statistics.

Her college students were inspired to become reading partners too.

Now, they often stop by her office hours to swap stories and advice about their reading partners experiences. Some are now even considering careers in education.

Jessica explains, “It’s a win-win-win for me. I get to work with young kids, see my students become more confident, and give back to the community. There’s no negative.”

To individuals considering becoming reading partners themselves, Jessica offers this encouragement: “It’s an hour, but you could help a person for the rest of their life.”

*Student names have been changed to comply with student privacy laws.

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