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Minnesota Reading and Math Corps makes a big difference for struggling students. Now, they’re making it easier to volunteer.

Prospective tutors now have the option to serve in schools three days a week, for six hours a day (for a total of 18 hours a week).

Leadership at Richardson Elementary say they’re already looking to fill two new positions for next school year: another Reading Corps position and a Math Corps position.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

During a recent reading intervention with a second-grader, Jenny Nyberg pulled out a short story about snow and asked Alejandro to read it out loud on his own. He worked his way through, tracking each word with his pointer finger. The words came out a bit stilted, but Nyberg praised his use of inflection once he’d reached the end.

She already had a plan in place to help him smooth out his cadence — one that didn’t require drawing attention to the fact that he was reading a bit slower than his peers. Rather, she picked up a thick colored pencil and drew brackets around the first paragraph, to indicate this is the section they’d tackle first, and they took turns reading every other word.

As Nyberg pushed the pace, Alejandro largely kept up, only stumbling over a couple of words before he’d give it another take on his own, for added reinforcement. After they’d dissected each section of the story, he read the entire passage by himself. This time, it flowed.

They did the same exercise with another story, before Nyberg sent him back to his classroom with a sticker and permission to stop by the water fountain for a drink — rewards for his efforts toward becoming a stronger reader.

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Nyberg says she began tutoring Alejandro in October. He’s one of 16 elementary students — spanning kindergarten through third grade — that she works with one-on-one for 20 minutes every day. Some, like Alejandro, are on the cusp of a breakthrough that’ll bring them up to speed with their peers. Others, who are further behind, have been working with Nyberg for a lot longer. And some may continue to work with her next year, as she enters her fourth, and final, year as a Reading Corps volunteer at Richardson Elementary School in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district.

Those who would like to do something similar but have been hesitant about signing up for a full-time volunteer commitment can now take advantage of some new part-time positions that are being offered by Reading Corps and Math Corps in Minnesota. Prospective tutors now have the option to serve in schools three days a week, for six hours a day (for a total of 18 hours a week).

“Over the years, we’ve seen there are so many people who want to serve, who have the passion to make a difference in their community, but can’t commit to five days a week,” said Lizzie Morris, a program manager for Minnesota Reading Corps. “We’re thinking about parents who are looking to get back into the workforce, retirees who have some other things going on, and current college students.”

A targeted approach

The hiring deadline for the next batch of volunteers — including those interested in serving part time — is Jan. 5, with a $50 sign-on bonus for those who apply by Dec. 15. Leadership at Richardson Elementary say they’re already looking to fill two new positions for next school year: another Reading Corps position and a Math Corps position.

The push to expand the programs’ reach comes in response to the persistent achievement gaps at two critical junctures: According to state exams results, 47 percent of third-graders are not proficient in reading and 41 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math.

Math Corps tutors work with students in grades 4-8, pulling students in need of math interventions out for support in pairs, rather than offering one-on-one support. Reading Corps tutors work in preK-3 settings, which could be in a school, at a child care center or at an in-home child care provider location.

First-grader Abby working with tutor Jenny Nyberg
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
First-grader Abby working with tutor Jenny Nyberg during a one-on-one session.

At Richardson Elementary — a very diverse school, where nearly 70 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch and nearly a fifth receive English Language services — Principal Jenna Peters says the tutors, who have been serving at her school since 2009, are an integral part of her team. Even though classroom teachers work hard to differentiate instruction and offer targeted support during intervention blocks, they can’t always offer a lot of one-on-one support.

“It’s a very targeted process. We’re picking kids who need a little more time and attention to make gains. It’s that sort of pull-out thing that, without it, we just wouldn’t be able to get to those kids as effectively,” she said. “Learning occurs when really strong relationships are in place. You can’t really put data on that, but it is another caring adult that gets to meet the needs of our kids. The kids love that extra time and attention.”

Morris says recruiters work with candidates to make sure their site assignments are a good fit, taking factors like commute distance, experience, community ties and student age preferences into account.

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For Nyberg, her site placement was an obvious fit because that’s where both of her boys — now in third and fifth grade — are enrolled. But her qualifications to serve as a volunteer weren’t as obvious to her, in the beginning. Prior to becoming a Reading Corps volunteer, she’d worked as a manager at an adult group home, but was looking to strike a better work-life balance as a single mother.

“Because my work experience had been with adults, I really wasn’t sure how I would get along with children. I was pretty concerned about that,” she said, noting those concerns were laid to rest when she realized she couldn’t make it down the hallway without being stopped for a high-five or a group hug. “That’s been nice to find I can spend my days in an elementary school and they accept me.”

New recruits will receive training Jan. 15-18 in Minneapolis, along with ongoing trainings and support from a network of Reading and Math Corps mentors and coaches — some roving and some located on site. All of the training material is grounded in research-based best practices, but all of the intervention strategies are accessible to those who don’t have any formal background in teaching.

Second-grader Alejandro working with tutor Jenny Nyberg.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Second-grader Alejandro working with tutor Jenny Nyberg.

The part-time benefits package includes a $225 every-other-week living stipend, plus a $1,230 education award that can be used for tuition or student loan repayment or gifted to a child, grandchild or foster child by volunteers ages 55 and over.

In Nyberg’s experience, the pay isn’t what’s kept her coming back each year. While she’s putting the education award to good use — in pursuing a new degree that she hopes to parlay into a new job in the education sector — it’s more about being able to play a more active role in her own kids’ school and helping students get to a place with their reading where they’ll be able to access all of the science, language arts and other subject content that they’d miss out on if they continue to struggle with literacy.

Reflecting on one of her more memorable cases, Nyberg says she had a boy who made it very clear that he didn’t like working with her. Despite his efforts to thwart progress, she persisted and he tested out of the tutoring program right before his family was getting ready to move.

As she does with any of her students who graduate out of the program, Nyberg says she gave him a book, a pencil and a card that she’d written for him. To her surprise, she heard from his classroom teacher, later that week, that  — even though he’d already cleared out his desk — he had been carrying her card around and showing it to his classmates, telling them: “Look how much she loves me.”

“I’ve just really liked being a part of this school community,” Nyberg said. “I think, as an outsider, sometimes you don’t know how you’ll be received. I’ve gotten to feel like a colleague and a peer, respected and appreciated. It’s been nice to collaborate with people I respect, doing things that do make a difference.”