America Reads still going strong after 10 years

The federal literacy program helps children at 35 Twin Cities sites.

Betsy Graca

Like many University students, Lucia Yess found her small-town upbringing to be a little sheltered. However, through her experiences as a local tutor, Yess has been exposed to multiple cultures.

Yess works with the community-engaging America Reads Program. First established in 1998 under President Clinton, the nationwide project strives to improve literacy rates across the United States.

The University has three America Reads chapters: the Literacy Initiative, the University YMCA and the Multicultural Center, each providing professionally trained tutors.

The tutors work with elementary and ESL children to advance literacy skills, an often overlooked issue in the United States.

America Reads mandates that tutors aid children specifically from low-income families – determined by the number of federally supplied lunches.

The program continues to be entirely federally funded, even after Clinton left office.

There was concern that President George W. Bush would eliminate funding, Rosemary Miller, director of the University Literacy Initiative, said. Fortunately for the program, Bush continued funding, although the educational emphasis moved on to the controversial No Child Left Behind act.

“Had the funding been gone, the program would have been belly up,” Miller said.

Without reading skills, children aren’t able to succeed in other areas of study either, Miller said.

Many universities throughout the nation have continued the program under a different name since Clinton left, though Miller felt the title America Reads still holds important recognition.

In the beginning, the enrollment had about 60 students but has grown to an estimated 350 students over the past decade, Miller said.

About 35 sites in the Twin Cities use the program and the demand for tutors is growing. Despite the call for more tutors, Jennifer Kohler, coordinator of the Minneapolis locations, said she feels that limiting program enrollment allows for more in-depth training and therefore more qualified tutors.

The tutoring not only benefits the children working to improve literacy skills but also the development of the tutors themselves, Miller said.

Yess is beginning her third year as an America Reads tutor and said she feels privileged to work with such outstanding youths.

“It’s amazing to watch the children’s eyes light up and their extreme excitement for learning,” Yess said.

Yess said she was impressed, working with young children who are oftentimes trilingual.

Both the tutors and the children gain cultural experience in the community-based program.

The children are not only given a standard education, but are also able to retain some of their own cultural heritage by working activities into classes, Yess said.

In addition, the children are able to teach things about their cultures to one another.

“I wish I could have experienced other cultures in my childhood,” Yess said.

Sister Jana Roberts, volunteer coordinator for the East Side Learning Center in St. Paul, said the children’s test scores have risen and literacy has improved due to the one-on-one tutoring time America Reads provides to the students.

Improving reading skills isn’t the only advantage children gain through the program, she said.

“It’s wonderful for the children,” Roberts said, “because they look up to the tutors as role models and hope to be able to go to college and achieve what (the tutors) have.”