News: It Takes a State

Volunteers across Ohio help students improve their reading

Jun 27, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Joe Trauth and Amy Moore of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. mentor a student at John P. Parker Elementary School in Madisonville.

If you can read this sentence, you can help a child succeed. When Gov. Bob Taft first established the OhioReads program, his goal was to find 20,000 volunteers to help students improve their reading skills. Today there are 40,000 volunteers statewide.

"This is the first piece of legislation that he signed as governor in 1999," says Fern Conte, spokeswoman for OhioReads. "This is his highest priority — to enable every Ohio child to succeed and to succeed at reading."

OhioReads volunteers help students in kindergarten through fourth grade improve their reading skills so they can pass the reading portion of the fourth grade proficiency test.

"OhioReads is to ensure that all children can read at grade level before they leave elementary school," Conte says.

Retirement from the American Arbitration Association left Philip Thompson with spare time he decided to spend helping students at Westwood Elementary School learn to enjoy reading. He tutored two second-grade boys with reading and helped three kindergartners learn to write their names and numbers. He helped the second-grade students read books their teacher assigned, then added some additional reading material such as Shel Silverstein's poetry and a Sports Illustrated article on Michael Jordan.

"I said, 'See, you're reading an adult's magazine and you're doing fine,' " he says. "I tried to make it fun and I tried to make it different. I think it's important, and I love to read."

One student saw his test scores more than double in the time Thompson spent with him.

"I could see improvement over the three months," Thompson says.

During those months, the students began working at sounding out new words and reading with expression, he says. He even helped students write their own stories.

The Ohio Adult Literacy Survey, conducted in 1993 by Educational Testing Service, appears to be the most recent data on illiteracy in the state.

"Results of the survey revealed that between 16 percent and 18 percent of Ohio's adult population, or 1.3 million to 1.5 million individuals, scored in the lowest literacy level," according to a report by the Ohio Literacy Network. "While many of these individuals were able to sign their name or read a simple passage, they could not consistently perform tasks such as reading a bus schedule, locating an intersection on a map or determining the difference in price between two items."

OhioReads has about $2.6 million in classroom grants, community grants and stipends at work in the Cincinnati Public Schools, according to Conte. Nearly 1,500 volunteers participate in the program, serving 2,257 Cincinnati students.

Seniors Teaching and Reaching Students (STARS), funded by OhioReads, gives people age 55 and older an incentive to mentor and tutor students. STARS participants can earn a stipend or tuition units from the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority. The tuition credits can go to a volunteer's grandchild or other child they select.

STARS' program model is in use in three Cincinnati schools.

CincinnatiReads, the OhioReads program in Cincinnati schools, has an annual budget of $50,000, according to Julie Steimle, program manager. Businesses and foundations fund CincinnatiReads, but the schools they work with receive OhioReads grants.

Steimle believes many students are reading below grade level because of environmental factors.

"Sometimes they haven't been read to a lot in the early pre-school years," she says.

In some cases, parents might not know how to read or might have work schedules that limit the amount of time they can spend reading with their kids at home. Some children have visual or hearing impairments that inhibit their reading abilities or might be behind because they missed school due to illness.

Volunteers with CincinnatiReads choose the schools where they want to volunteer. Tutors take a 90-minute training program and can spend as little as half an hour or an hour a week tutoring.

"While it's a consistent commitment, it's very little time each week," Steimle says. "It's a very good, flexible volunteer opportunity for a busy person."

This year 42 Cincinnati schools participated in the program. A survey of teachers shows progress is being made.

"They reported that about 80 percent had improved use of reading strategies," Steimle says.

One school with a very structured reading program had students who advanced their reading by 2.3 grade levels on average.

Steimle says the school district will evaluate fourth grade scores on the reading portion of the proficiency test to determine if students who received help fared better than those who didn't.

Only 37 percent of fourth graders in Cincinnati Public Schools had passed the reading portion of the fourth grade proficiency test as of March 2002, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Volunteers range from middle school students to senior citizens.

"We have volunteers in the summer as young as 12 or 13 years of age," Steimle says.

But business support has been essential to the program's success.

"OhioReads encourages businesses to become involved with their local schools by providing tutors to tutor one hour a week," Conte says. "Some employers even provide transportation for their tutor."

Joe Trauth, community relations manager of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Cincinnati, says participants at the plant are excited about their volunteer work.

"I think right away they get a bond with someone," he says. "You know they're counting on you and you don't want to miss it, because it's kind of a special half hour that you have with that student."

Trauth tutors two students at Woodford Paideia School. He reads with the students, does word exercises with them and helps with new words.

The tutors, whom the bottling company allows to volunteer during work hours, start to get to know students and sometimes give them rewards for the challenges they complete.

"After about four weeks, the employees I talked to were just gung-ho," Trauth says. "They couldn't wait to get there."

For more information about volunteering with CincinnatiReads, call 513-784-0450. To contact OhioReads, call 888-OhioReads. For more information on the STARS program, call 513-272-2800 or 877-632-7827.