America Reads offers success, benefits for U tutors and children

by Brianne Rasmussen

When Stephen Swanson was a freshman, he didn’t know what he was going to do. He didn’t have a job and he didn’t have a planned major. Then he found out about America Reads.
Since then, Swanson has discovered a love for working with children and is now majoring in elementary education.
He is one of many University students participating as tutors in America Reads, a national program aimed at improving children’s reading skills.
The goal of the program, started nationally in 1996 by President Clinton and at the University in 1997, is to teach children to read before they enter the fourth grade. But, in the end, the program also benefits the tutors.
America Reads was implemented as one of five programs in the University’s Early Literacy Initiative.
Rosemary Miller, coordinator of the Early Literacy Initiative, said that this year it has more than 300 tutors working at different elementary schools and community centers in the Twin Cities.
“It’s really booming,” she said.
America Reads coordinator Lisa Wexler is responsible for hiring most of these tutors.
Wexler said most of the students involved have work-study funds, but there are also student and alumni volunteers.
Wexler said before the tutors start work, they attend training on how to tutor and how children learn to read.
“It’s good for college students who are too busy,” Wexler said. “They can earn money by doing a service.”
Swanson, now a sophomore, has been involved in America Reads for two years.
“It changed my life,” he said.
Each week, Swanson works one-on-one with a student for an hour.
He said he starts out each session by discussing the child’s day, family, school, or anything else the student wants want to talk about.
He then has the child read through a book they have previously read, a new book, and then he reads another new book to the child.
They end the session by playing games focused on improving the child’s reading skills.
“You become closer than a teacher,” he said. “You become their big buddy.”
Miller said retaining tutors is a critical factor, so they have become more careful about whom they hire.
She describes the job as a lesson in responsibility for the students since it is important they show up each week.
“For many of these children, the adults aren’t always very reliable,” she said. “We emphasize relationship development, and we help them feel good at reading.”
Swanson said he is pleased with the job.
“It’s the only job I’ve had that I don’t dread going to,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”