Program turns U students into tutors

by Sarah McKenzie

While taking a stroll in her St. Paul neighborhood during winter break, Wendy Quesada, a College of Liberal Arts sophomore, bumped into a little friend.
The little friend, accompanied by her mother, pointed to Quesada. “Look Mom, that’s my tutor!”
Pleased by the validation, Quesada said it’s experiences like these that have made her participation in the America Reads Challenge worthwhile. The program pairs University students with youth in inner city schools and recreation centers in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Quesada and more than 250 other students took part in the University’s program during fall quarter for the first time.
The America Reads Challenge is comprised of three tracks: work study students, those enrolled in a service learning course and a program coordinated through the Chicano Latino Resource Center.
Students enrolled in the service learning course are able to gain University credit for their part-time involvement. Those in the other tracks are paid an average of $8.25 per hour of service.
Bill Wilson, coordinator of student and professional services, is a key organizer of the America Reads Challenge at the University.
His plans for the program took shape after hearing President Clinton speak at the Target Center in October 1996. Clinton addressed the illiteracy problem among youth and pledged to devote a large portion of federal work study money toward the America Reads Challenge.
Wilson spoke to Bob Bruininks, then dean of the College of Education and Human Development, about the responsibility the University had to take on illiteracy in the metro area. He said Bruininks immediately voiced support.
“Ultimately, educators have the responsibility to see that education occurs,” Wilson said. The College of Education and Human Development serves as the program’s hub.
Wilson said he wanted to involve many University students in the literacy campaign, and eventually all students. If program organizers had their way, participation would be a graduation requirement.
“We think a lot of good applied research should come out of this,” Wilson said.
Reflecting on the first quarter of the challenge, Wilson remains optimistic and noted that this first year will serve primarily as a trial and error period.
“I remind students that this is not the end, but rather just the beginning,” Wilson said.
Although the America Reads Challenge’s quirks still need to be worked out, Folarin Ero-Phillips, director of the Oak Park Neighborhood Center, said the tutoring program is a step in the right direction.
“It is very crucial to my service to the community,” Ero-Phillips said.
His goal is to help kids at an early age understand the value of reading and writing.
Children at the Oak Park Neighborhood Center range in age from 7 to 15. Eleven tutors from the University are on hand to read with the students one on one.
Ero-Phillips, a doctoral candidate at the University, said the tutors not only offer an educational service, but also provide the children with bonding opportunities.
“The kids really look up to the students,” he said.
For many of the kids, the America Reads Challenge is the first opportunity they have had to receive individual attention, Ero-Phillips said.
In fact, the children aren’t the only ones learning. Ero-Phillips has seen the tutors’ eyes open as well.
“They are shocked to see that some fifth graders can’t read,” he said.
Quesada said these experiences serve as important reality checks.
“You go beyond reading,” she said. “You develop a relationship. They can trust you and share new things.”
Recently, kids at Oak Park weren’t doing their reading exercises. During the holiday break they were given time to let loose — play games, color and drink soda.
But the America Reads program was fresh in their minds. Shy 8-year-old Rayona Kardell expressed her affection for Dr. Seuss books, which she reads regularly with a tutor.
Mary Pargo, building coordinator at the center, supervises the tutors. She said they do a good job, but mentioned a need for the tutors to come in five days a week rather than just two.
“We’ve really seen a difference,” Pargo said. “We won’t really know how effective the tutors are until the kids’ report cards come in.”