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Learning Buddies work one-on-one with Dakota County kids to ensure they reach benchmarks

Even though many are former educators, the Learning Buddies get ongoing training in strategies that help kids acquire missing skills.

Retired early childhood educator Lois Froehlig volunteers at Glacier Hills and at Woodland Elementary, in Eagan.
Courtesy of Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools

If this were your run-of-the-mill feature story about a program that matches older adults with time and talent with classrooms full of inquisitive youngsters, you’d be forgiven for thinking you know the rest. How sweet for both generations, you might think, imagining grandparents narrating picture books.

This is not that story. This story is about a deliberate, strategic effort to make sure that volunteer talent is brought up to speed on current best practices and deployed where it’s most needed.

Mary Lou Anderson

Last year, Mary Lou Anderson spent one day a week with the second-graders at Diamond Path Elementary in Apple Valley. It was a far cry from her day as a classroom teacher, when the presumption was that some kids would excel, some would do just fine and some would lag.

Like schools everywhere, Diamond Path is under the gun to ensure its pupils are reading by third grade. To make sure they’re on track, the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district wants everyone to be able to read and spell 500 words by the end of second grade.

With different kids missing different words, helping each conquer the whole list was a massive job. Too massive for a single teacher in the view of Anderson, who was in her first year as a volunteer with Learning Buddies, a program offered by the Dakota County nonprofit DARTS.

“There was no way [the teacher] could do it without outside help,” Anderson said at a recent breakfast banquet celebrating the end of the school year. “She had 26 kids in her classroom.”

One-on-one help

So on Tuesdays Anderson, retired from a teaching career that took her to three states, supplied one-on-one backup. Prosperous as Diamond Path is, students come with challenges she never faced.

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“The English-language learners,” Anderson said, “some of them could barely sound out the words.”

Would she have chosen to spend seven months breaking down and reviewing a list of basic words over, and over and over again with two dozen kids? Probably not, but Anderson is gratified her skills contributed to the success of a larger, critical effort.

Third grade is an academic watershed. Pressure starts to increase in fourth grade, and if you can’t read, you can’t write and you probably can’t keep up in most subjects.

Kids who are not literate by the third grade are likely to struggle for the rest of their academic lives, research shows. Three-fourths will continue to lag and many will not graduate from high school, finish college or acquire the skills to compete in the work force.

Critical benchmark

Indeed third-grade literacy is such an important benchmark that Minnesota, like many other states, has laws on the books mandating specific efforts to ensure kids are reading and writing. Their teachers are under the gun.

At the same time, education policymakers are increasingly hot on “personalized learning.” A catchphrase that can mean a host of specifics depending on the school, pupil and subject, it boils down to providing every learner with tailor-made challenges and supports. Effective, yes, but again teachers are under the gun.

In 1997, staff at Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan’s highest poverty school and at DARTS, a community group that provides services and support to Dakota County residents as they age, decided to see whether the talents of older adults could help bridge the resource gap and bring kids up to grade level.

They invited half a dozen volunteers to begin assisting kindergarten and first-grade teachers at Glacier Hills Elementary. The reading buddies, as they were known then, proved immensely popular. As their numbers grew, they began coaching in math and science and spread up through fourth grade.

90 volunteers in 27 schools

During the school year that just concluded, the program placed 90 volunteers in 27 schools throughout Dakota County. Next year, they will be in 31 elementary schools.

All told, over the last 16 years the volunteers have donated 70,000 hours of classroom instruction to 38,000 students. The goal is to spread to every primary school in the county.

Flint Hills Resources has underwritten the program from the start, donating nearly half a million dollars. The value of the classroom time donated each year, in turn, is more than $95,000.

Even though many are former educators, the Learning Buddies get ongoing training in strategies that help kids acquire missing skills. They get basics — reinforce reading strategies like stopping at periods and pausing at commas — but they also hear about best practices in bullying prevention and how to ask questions that reinforce comprehension.

Math is one thing that has changed tremendously since many helmed their own classrooms. Volunteers have been trained in the Singapore math curriculum, taught math games and shown multiple ways to help guide students to the right answers to math problems.

Outcomes found to be broad

When the program’s administrators sat down to measure progress in reading, they realized academics weren’t the only outcome. The relationships helped students develop character, increasingly thought to be a reason some kids beat the odds. And the volunteers grew, too.

Retired early childhood educator Lois Froehlig volunteers at Glacier Hills and at Woodland Elementary, also in Eagan. At Woodland Hills she works on math with first graders. Her kids get a lot of one-on-one lesson review — disguised as games.

“During our sessions I can see they’re mastering things just from the beginning to the end of the hour, like counting by fives or tens,” said Froehlig. “They become fluent.”

Since the days when she was in a classroom full time, instruction has become much more individualized and the array of cultures represented vastly broader, Froehlig said: “The needs of individual kids are attended to a lot more.”

Froehlig is gratified to be effective with kids who were struggling — and proud that she’s popular enough that her teachers have to make sure every pupil gets a turn with her.

“I love to see them understand I’m on their side,” she said. “It’s you and me against ignorance.”