A reading program in Ames and Story County is having to turn away children because it doesn’t have enough volunteer tutors.
Students’ summer slide in learning is a perennial problem, but Raising Readers in Story County has a program to help limit that loss of knowledge.
In fact, the Reading Buddies program aims to do more than that. One of its main goals is to instill youngsters’ love of reading.
Raising Readers promotes language and literacy development in children from birth to eight years of age and nurtures healthy parent-child relationships.
The organization is relocated at North Grand Mall in Ames to give children better access to the service. The organization still maintains its presence throughout the county by offering programs in the schools, libraries and groups like the Boys and Girls Club. Each child who visits the new location at the mall receives a free book.
“We are very excited about being at the mall,” said Jerri Heid, who co-manages the Reading Buddies program with Diana Claus. “We have different groups of people coming in there that would otherwise never see us.”
Recently, a mother stopped by after working out at Planet Fitness in the mall.
“She said her kids had used Reading Buddies before and she wanted to give back and volunteer,” Heid said. “She signed up and took our training and she is one of our mentors. If we had n’t been at the mall, that serendipitous meeting would n’t have happened.”
More:Raising Readers opens new storefront at North Grand Mall in Ames, seeks volunteers
The new location at the mall also brings in kids who might not visit the library, and the draw of a free book for visiting children is a powerful one, she said.
“The joy in their face when they realize this is a book for them to keep forever and ever — there’s something to be said for that,” Heid said.
Tutoring takes a couple hours a week, makes a huge impact
It’s simple to get started as a tutor. Volunteers fill out an application and after a background check is completed, the volunteer takes a 90-minute training. Then, a tutor spends about two hours a week reading with their assigned child.
“We started tutoring in the Ames community about 10 years ago,” Diana Claus said. “The Reading Buddies tries to eliminate the learning loss we see during the summer.”
The program focuses on development and maintenance of reading and writing skills.
“But we also expand beyond that and really want children to enjoy reading,” Claus said. “We cut some of the pressure that kids have in school where they’re assessed and timed.”
Reading Buddies kids may get some informal assessments, but the program’s major focus is on the joy of reading.
“The tutor’s enthusiasm can rub off on the child,” Claus said. “We’re trying to build up confidence and motivation so kids get really enthusiastic about reading.”
The tutoring is free and is being conducted at five sites in Story County. Tutors can be as young as 14 years old.
“High school students, late middle school students, college students, working people, retired people — we just want the whole spectrum of tutors,” Claus said. “It’s really good for kids to learn to work with people of different ages.”
Tutors’ training includes strategies for before, during and after reading, which promotes a dialogue between the child and their tutor about the book they’re reading together.
“That helps develop those comprehension skills that kids need,” she said.
The tutors and the children both read aloud and write during their 45-minute sessions twice a week.
“We want the tutor to model fluency and expression and then for the students to practice that too,” Claus said.
Ability to read in third grade predicts future success
The ability to read and the access to books both have a profound impact on a child’s future success.
“We know that if a child has books in their home, there is a correlation to the success of graduating from high school. So, we finish up the last day with giving books to the kids,” Heid said. “They’re forever books that can go home with them.”
If a student is reading proficiently at the end of third grade, Heid said, they’re four times more like to finish high school than a child who is not proficient at that age.
One of the assessments conducted in schools to determine students’ reading ability is the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress.
“For the year 2020, in Ames for third graders, 45% of the students were not proficient,” Claus said. “We serve all of Story County and you can see that same dire percentage rate for non-proficiency — and it has magnified since COVID.”
Raising Readers collaborates with community partners, such as United Way, Ames Public Library, Huxley Public Library, YSS, Story County Reads, Nevada schools, Ballard school and the Boys and Girls Club. Those partners help Raising Readers determine which students to include in the Reading Buddies program, since there are not enough tutors to help all the children who are not proficient.
“In Story County, there are 4,933 children between the ages of 5 and 9, which is the age range of the children we work with. If you think on average 45% of those children are not proficient, that’s a lot of kids,” Claus said.
Tutoring is taking place at satellite sites in Ames, Nevada and Huxley this summer.
Although the Reading Buddies program is already underway, volunteers are still welcome. Raising Readers has a need for volunteers, as well, who want to help but don’t want to tutor. Activities like book delivery, stocking the Little Free Libraries, unpacking and labeling books are among those needs.
“Reading good books with kids broadens their horizons and allows them to experience new things,” Claus said. “It can inspire them and connect them to people, and it can develop a sense of empathy. And that’s certainly where we want kids to head — being more compassionate and thinking about other people. That’s a developmental thing, too.”
A tutor benefits from the Reading Buddies program, too, she said.
“Being a positive role model and knowing that when you help a child, you can set them up for success in the future is valuable,” Claus said. “Most of our tutors love to read and write, and conveying that love and trying to spread that to the younger generation is really cool.”
To volunteer to tutor, visit the Raising Readers location at North Grand Mall or go to the organization’s website, raising-readers.org.
Ronna Faaborg covers business and the arts for the Ames Tribune. You can reach her at [email protected]