At age 6, “Alisa’s” teacher knew she was hopelessly behind. Unlike the other children at the beginning of first grade, Alisa couldn’t identify the sounds that went with letters, couldn’t put them together to form words and lacked an understanding of the basic structures of language. Unfortunately, Alisa knew this also; she understood all too well she was different from the other kids. As a result, she lacked confidence in herself as a student and did not have the courage to ask for help. The other kids knew Alisa was slow and called her “dumb,” which she assumed to be true. She felt like an outcast. But Alisa’s life was about to change; her teacher referred her to Read to Succeed, an in-school volunteer tutoring program for children challenged by learning to read.
Alisa was the oldest of three children, her mother a single parent; the family lived in public housing. Alisa’s mother worked three part-time jobs to support her children and, because she quit school in the 10th grade, had little chance of improving her job prospects. Prior to entering kindergarten, Alisa had been cared for by a series of baby sitters during the hours her mom was at work. The sitters watched TV all day, and because her mom was distracted and exhausted when she got home from work, by age 3, Alisa had heard 30 million fewer spoken words than her middle-class classmates — words that are the foundation of language structure and literacy. Further, the family’s apartment had few, if any, books that could have piqued Alisa’s curiosity about reading. When Alisa entered kindergarten, she was already more than a year behind her classmates and her teacher knew without “extended learning time,” it was unlikely she would ever catch up.
The cards were stacked against Alisa when she entered kindergarten, and she was bound to remain behind throughout school without an intervention. We know from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report that 12th-grade students from low-income families read on average four years below middle-class 12th-graders. In fact, their reading performance in 12th grade is on average equal to the performance of middle-class eighth- graders.
How to reshuffle the cards so Alisa has a chance at a life easier than her mother’s? That was the question asked by the founders of Read to Succeed in 2010. In researching this problem, they learned that enabling poor children to read proficiently in the early grades was the single most essential skill needed to reverse intergenerational poverty. They learned that by (1) providing frequent one-on-one in-school tutoring (“extended learning”), (2) using a tested multisensory phonics curriculum based on the research of Orton-Gillingham, (3) providing intensive and high-quality training to volunteer tutors, (4) providing in-school supervision and support as well as monthly in-service training, and (5) asking volunteers to make a one- to three-year commitment to their kindergarten student, children like Alisa can catch up. And time has shown our founders were correct.
When Alisa first met Betsy, her R2S tutor, she had little trust in herself or in Betsy. But as the year progressed, so did Alisa. Encouraged by their growing relationship, Alisa began to trust and in turn to learn, and feel as if she could learn to read. By the end of third grade, she had caught up with her classmates, much to the delight of her classroom teacher. Last year, R2S worked with 134 public school students and 40 percent reached grade level in reading.
We at R2S wonder at the magic of these relationships as they develop each year. If you wish to make a difference in a child’s life and simultaneously enjoy the feeling of “giving back,” join our teams of reading coaches and reading buddies. You can sign up before Aug. 15 for the next training session that starts in September by going to the R2S website at www.r2sasheville.org. You can make a huge difference in a child’s life.
— Catherine Alter
Chair, Read to Succeed