Minnesota Reading & Math Corps Blog

New Flex Tutoring Position Keeping Students from Falling Behind

By: Jennifer Walch

ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) – Students in Minnesota are falling behind in reading and math. That’s a problem, because proficiency in those areas are the building blocks for success.

State testing show results show one in three third graders in the state isn’t reading at their grade level and 40 percent of eighth graders aren’t meeting standards in math.

AmeriCorps programs, Minnesota Reading Corps and Minnesota Math Corps have been meeting the call to help, but now need some support.

“We have a number of students who are not meeting benchmark standards from the earliest grades,” Principal Howard Wilson of Eastern Heights Elementary School in St. Paul said.

Educators say, third grade is the turning point when children transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Studies show, nearly 75 percent of third graders who read poorly, continue to read poorly in high school.

“If they are falling behind we want to be able to catch them up really quickly, so that they get everything they possibly can out of their classroom instruction,” Julia Quanrud, Director of Minnesota Reading Corps said.

About 1,500 tutors are working with kids across the state five days a week, but more are needed.

Now, the AmeriCorps programs are offering more flexibility with a new three-day position. It’s 18 hours a week. The tutors get paid and receive more than a $1,000 to put toward college tuition or student loans.

To tutor, they don’t need to have a teaching license or a college degree. Program coordinators will teach them what they need to know to help the children succeed.

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

By Erin Hinrichs | 12/08/17

First-grader Abby working with tutor Jenny Nyberg during a one-on-one session. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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Minnesota Reading Corps and Math Corps in Need of Tutors


MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A program to help kids with reading and math is seeing a shortage of tutors this year.

Minnesota’s Reading and Math Corps is looking to fill a few hundred more openings to help students in schools across the state. Tutors within the program will help 35,000 students in Minnesota improve their reading and math skills.

“Our program meets a need, kind of in the middle. Our tutors helps students who wouldn’t otherwise get services from outside the normal classroom,” said Sara Nobbs of Minnesota Reading and Math Corps.

Leading into the 2017-2018 school year, the Reading and Math Corps was facing the largest shortage of tutors in 14 years. To date, 1,200 tutors are now in Minnesota schools, but 500 more tutors are still needed.

“I really think part of it is we’re a really well-kept secret. We don’t want to be. We want everyone to know about our program and know we’re in schools across the state,” Nobbs said.

At 72 years old, Bob Mowatt is one of the Reading Corps tutors at Hillcrest Community School in Bloomington. As a part-time tutor, Bob spends every day, for five hours a day, helping kids reach their literacy goals.

“They’re so excited about being successful and that makes me feel good,” said Mowatt, a Reading Corps tutor.

“I can now understand, like, everything and it’s not as confusing anymore,” said Hope, a student at Hillcrest Community School.

“Now, I can read more clearly and I can read larger words and stuff,” said Sophia, a student at Hillcrest Community School.

Bob knows that struggle of learning to read all too well. Five years ago, a stroke took his ability to read. He spent nine months re-learning how to read and he now brings that understanding to his tutoring sessions.

“I really became aware of how much we depend upon written communication to know what’s going on and how we’re supposed to do things and run our lives. It was frustrating not to be able to do that,” Mowatt said. “I think that gave me a lot of empathy for kids who are struggling with learning how to read.”

Seeing his students overcome their challenges inspires Bob to keep working on his own skills.

“I still can’t read at the level before the stroke,” Mowatt said. “I was doing technical writing and technical reading and research.”

The Reading Corps program was developed to help pre-K through third graders, yet even a retiree can take away an important lesson.

“If they can grow and continue to get better, so can I,” Mowatt said.

There is a stipend for anyone who signs up to become a tutor.

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In 20 minutes a day, tutors help kids boost reading, math skills

Stephanie Dickrell, Saint Cloud Times – sdickrell@stcloudtimes.com

Lauren Buckentine, Minnesota Reading Corps program manager, and Katie Johnson, former Reading Corps tutor, talk about the need for tutors Thursday, July 13, at Minnesota Math & Reading Corps. (Photo: Jason Wachter, jwachter@stcloudtimes.com)

Twenty minutes a day.

Less than two hours a week.

In that time, a Reading Corps or Math Corps tutor can help elementary schools meet grade-level standards.

Tutors target students in the gaps, said Lauren Buckentine, program manager for the St. Cloud Office of Minnesota Reading Corps and Minnesota Math Corps.

Here’s how she describes the gap: The group in the middle — the students who aren’t quite meeting grade-level standards but aren’t so behind they qualify for special education or other services.

These are the kids who would otherwise slip through the cracks. By providing a boost now, they can keep kids at grade level, instead of watching them fall more and more behind.

And it works.

The program is in need of more tutors than it had in the past.

“Schools are seeing the effectiveness of it and they’re adding tutors,” Buckentine said.
Nontraditional schools and nonpublic school organizations are starting to use the services, too. Recently, some charter schools in St. Cloud have added Reading Corps as did Reach Up Head Start. There is also a higher need as standards increase, she added.

Also new this year in St. Cloud is a program that puts tutors in home day cares. Minneapolis has had the program for a few years.

“They incorporate literacy from birth to whatever age is at that day care,” Buckentine said.

As of mid-July, Buckentine was looking for more than 100 tutors covering an area from Alexandria east to Cambridge and Isanti, and from Little Falls south to Litchfield.

The programs use the AmeriCorps model to recruit, hire and place tutors. Schools and other groups apply to host tutors. Tutors need only a high school degree and to be 18 years old to apply.

Tutors go through interviews and are screened before going to a four-day intense training in Minneapolis. They also have three one-day training sessions in St. Cloud.

Last year, St. Cloud State University graduate Katie Johnson was one of them. She was looking for a way to spend more time in a school setting while she worked toward her teaching license and started applying for jobs in elementary school education.

“I looked into it more and it was exactly what I wanted to do,” she said.

She was placed at Becker primary school. Johnson and all tutors are taught specific reading or math interventions to try. For example, Johnson likes duet reading, where the child and tutor read every other word.

“We would take turns reading, so I was able to model for them,” Johnson said. “I found it to be very effective.”

The tutor then picks up the pace.

“So she’s pushing them to go faster,” Buckentine said. “The speed that they enhance through, that is just amazing. Their pace really improves.”

Once in the school, tutors test students or go by state test scores to determine who needs the programs.

With some schools, that can be a lot of kids.

“For example, there are some schools where over half the students aren’t meeting target,” Buckentine said. “And then there’s some schools were only 10 percent are not meeting target.”

Math Corps uses MCA scores to identify kids. Pre-K tutors will do whole-group interventions and then pull out the students who need extra help.

At every school there is a coach who works with the tutors, and master coaches who visit schools to lend expertise. Many coaches are former tutors and master coaches tend to be former school administrators. So they come with a lot of experience, Buckentine said.

Last school year, Johnson had a 15-student caseload, seeing each student for about 20 minutes each day. As students improved, they graduated and she took on new cases.

Whether the student is happy about being picked for the program depends.

“I made a point to make it an exciting environment for them,” Johnson said. “There were a few who would maybe need that extra (incentive).”

Buckentine said she’s had tutors tell her about students that graduate from the program wanting to get back into it.

“Or there will be students who never qualified and they’ll be like, ‘can you take me next?’ ”  Buckentine said.

There are plenty of benefits for the tutors, too. Johnson participated for the classroom experience.

“You can make a huge difference in these kids’ lives,” Johnson said. “It was a nice bridge … and transition into my next step.”

She also developed better communication skills, learned how to better interact with teachers and students, about time and behavior management and the everyday work of reading instruction.

Tutors receive a bi-weekly stipend and an education award at the end of the year, which they can apply to school costs or loans.

But tutors come to the program for many reasons. Depending on how many hours they work, tutors can qualify for free health coverage and child care assistance.

Many are retirees from a variety of careers, who can use the education award given at the end of the year for a child or grandchild.

“I have one that was a postal worker,” Buckentine said. “And she found a new zest for life in serving.”

Many tutors end up working as teachers in the schools they worked in and some tutors become Reading Corps coaches. Some are stay-at-home moms that decide to go into teaching after tutoring.

“They haven’t been in the workforce and then they find that’s where their passion is,” Buckentine said. “It’s really fun from my perspective to work with all those different varieties.”

Some tutors teach for the connection.

“We were talking with a member … (he said) hearing the different things from the kids everyday and going home with a smile on your face is the most rewarding experience,” Buckentine said. “I hear that a lot — the joy and the smile of working with kids.”

Follow Stephanie Dickrell on Twitter @SctimesSteph, like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sctimessteph, call her at 255-8749 or find more stories at www.sctimes.com/sdickrell.

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Reading Corps Has Enhanced My Classroom

Guest Writer: Lindsey Bishop, second year Preschool Literacy Tutor – Educator Corps at Eden Prairie Early Childhood

Education Background:

I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with an Elementary and Early Childhood Education major, Literacy minor. I’ve spent the last 5 years working with early childhood children (ages 3-5).

History with Reading Corps:

This is my 2nd year with Reading Corps.

Why I serve with Minnesota Reading Corps:

I chose to be a Reading Corps member after seeing the success in my school. My literacy minor had me interested in ways to appropriately bring literacy skills into the classroom. I plan to use my education award to further my early childhood education knowledge through a master’s program.

Making a Difference:

This program has greatly impacted me as a classroom teacher. I believe I am much more intentional with my literacy teaching than I would have been without Reading Corps. The success that kids have had coming out of Reading Corps classrooms at my school is amazing! Between large group, small group, and individual work with students, they leave ready for kindergarten. The students become independent on many literacy skills because of the strategies Reading Corps has taught us. They love the transition songs that we sing daily. I have parents coming in all the time asking about a rhyming song their child keeps singing at home, or about the “how fast can we go” song because they want to race their brother or sister at home!

Student Success Story:

I am always impressed with how much students can learn in a few months. There is so much happening throughout the early childhood years, which is one of the best parts of being a preschool teacher. I had a student last year that had a hard time with letters. He had three letters in his name and those were close to the only letters he knew. In order to remember those three letters he had to think through his name each time. By the spring time, he was not only able to fluently name the letters in his name, he had also moved on to naming almost all other letters, learning sounds, and differentiating between rhyming and alliteration. He was very ready for kindergarten! This program is great, and I have seen firsthand how well it creates many student success stories.

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