In New York City, a host of organizations offers parents, community members, college students, and even teenagers the chance to be surrogate teachers and real mentors to public school students. Most of these programs provide unpaid volunteer positions, but some even offer hard cash. If you have not spent time inside a classroom working side-by-side with children, make it your 2014 New Year’s resolution to sign up now! Witnessing a child’s learning process up close and being even a small part of their education is guaranteed to give you an education too, unlike any other. Here is a profile of just three organizations that offer opportunities for participants across the age span.
Read Alliance: Teens Teach Early Readers
Read Alliance (www.readalliance.org) serves two at-risk populations from low income communities: struggling early readers in kindergarten and first grade, and teens that need part-time jobs and life skills for college and career. How does Read Alliance turn teenagers into phonics experts, reliable employees, and patient tutors with five and six year olds? “It is the simplicity of our curriculum that really works with teenagers,” explained Kelley Perkins, Executive Director. The research-based curriculum, called Reading for All Learners Program (RALP), emphasizes decoding and fluency, and has its own series of books and assessments to develop independent readers by second grade.
For one and a half hours after school, three to four days a week, teen tutors work one-on-one with their pupils in a dedicated classroom at the school, together with 20 other tutor-student pairs. Surprisingly, this large group creates an effective learning atmosphere, generating a “collective buzz,” according to Perkins. One teacher from the school, hired by Read Alliance and trained in the RALP curriculum, is present in the classroom, not to teach, but to hone the tutors’ skills as teachers.
For a 14-17 year-old tutor, the pay is meaningful at $7.25/hour, and can continue into a summer job at $8.50/hour when Read Alliance runs half day sessions four to five days a week. It was not until five years ago, however, that Read Alliance started to pay its teen tutors for after-school tutoring (summer tutors had always been paid). “We realized that in order to grow, we had to pay our tutors in order to access more teens,” says Perkins.
Many of the students in Read Alliance’s 40 partner schools across the city are English Language Learners (ELL), but Read Alliance has had no trouble hiring bilingual teens since they are recruited from the same communities. The RALP curriculum and books are entirely in English, and tutors have been especially effective with their ELL students who are at a ripe age for language acquisition.
This year, Read Alliance will serve 1,200 students and 1,100 tutors, and hopes to grow at least 10% each year. Word-of-mouth from principals has been the best sales tool. Schools have found pockets in their budgets to pay the $10,000 fee for after-school sessions during half the school year. The summer program is the same fee since the sessions are longer. As always, funding is the primary hurdle for growth. “If we want to serve 10% more students each year, we have to raise 10% more,” states Perkins.
The report card for these very young students and their young teachers is impressive. Within just half of a school year, students average more than a full year’s growth in their reading levels, and maintain these strong results through at least third grade. As inspiring is the impact on the teen tutors. “Reading is everything,” exclaims Robert Santiago, who tutored in the Bronx throughout high school and now attends Lehman College. “The best part about being a tutor is that kids get to look up to you.”
Jumpstart: College Students Work with Pre-Schoolers
College students who are contemplating the teaching profession or who simply enjoy the raw curiosity of an even younger group of learners should consider becoming a Jumpstart “Corps member.” Jumpstart (www.jstart.org) is a large, national non-profit, with its program in 73 pre-school and early learning classrooms in New York City alone. The sites are located in low income neighborhoods within Head Start centers, public schools, early learning centers, and community organizations.
Jumpstart’s city corps of almost 600 college students hail from 10 different colleges and universities, from York College in Queens to NYU in the Village. All must go through 30 hours of training before working two hours twice a week with pre-schoolers on their early language and literacy skills. Compensation is paid through AmeriCorps grants (typically $1,175 for 300 hours of service), or work/study money from colleges, or a combination of both. Some students volunteer their time for free. Corps member testimonies convey the fulfillment that goes well beyond the money earned. Wilmarie Cintron-Muniz from Fordham University remembers, “My proudest moment is, at the end of every year, seeing how excited all the children are to start kindergarten and knowing they are ready to learn.”
The tried-and-true Jumpstart curriculum revolves around a core storybook that the children follow for two sessions before moving on to a new story. In one-on-one and group sessions, these youngest students grasp and articulate ideas around themes, such as Family, Wind and Water, Shadows and Reflections, and Things That Grow. The two-hour session is structured with sequenced periods for welcome, shared reading, circle time, break-out activities, a “Let’s Find Out About It” period, and, finally, an elongated “sharing and goodbye” where children listen and share their favorite activities that day with the group.
Jumpstart’s latest impact study by a third party research firm confirmed this 20-year old organization’s consistent results. On all three criteria: literacy, school readiness, and socio-emotional skills, the gains were two or three times higher for Jumpstart students. The report concludes, “Jumpstart…impressively…equip[s] such children as they reach the cusp of kindergarten entry to succeed both academically and socially.”
Kerri Osborne, Jumpstart’s Executive Director for the Tri-State Area, purports that Jumpstart can be a key player in boosting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K initiative, since Jumpstart “not only provides high quality literacy support, but also a pipeline of quality pre-K teachers.” One quarter of the Corps members are already education majors. Although pre-school will be a top priority for the next city administration, Osborne worries that the biggest challenge in growing the organization is that, “A lot of people still don’t understand the importance of early childhood education and the importance of quality.”
Learning Leaders: Parents and Community Members Fortify Schools
Research proving the importance of family engagement for student success has become ubiquitous in recent years, so it is no surprise that parents and community members are flocking to Learning Leaders (www.learningleaders.org) to volunteer in schools. Since its founding over 50 years ago, Learning Leaders has established itself as the go-to organization in the city for top-notch training and placement in schools throughout the five boroughs. Its active force of 6,000 volunteers, about 85% parents and 15% community members, work in 250 high-need schools, the vast majority of which are designated Title 1 schools, those with a high proportion of low income students receiving supplemental Federal funding.
Executive Director Jane Heaphy calls the program a “triple win.” “Volunteers perform real work in the classroom, bring learning tools back home, and come into the school to engage in meaningful ways. They also become sympathetic about how hard it is to run a school, and they start to see themselves as part of the school community and part of the solution.” Over half of Learning Leaders parents report that becoming a volunteer caused them to join their school’s School Leadership Team, run for election to their Community Education Council, or apply for a Parent Coordinator position. From a teacher’s perspective, having volunteers in the classroom allows them to differentiate learning among students at varying levels, plus “exposing their students to different people is part of real life preparation,” attests Heaphy.
Principals are some of the biggest fans of Learning Leaders. Dr. Peter MacFarlane is Principal of PS/IS 180, a PK-8th grade school in Harlem with a cohort of 40 Learning Leader volunteers. He tributes the Learning Leaders partnership with enabling his school to evolve from parent volunteerism to successful community building, with a very active and thriving PTA. “The school is the focal point of our community in collaboration and partnership with parents,” declares “Dr. Mac” proudly.
When Learning Leaders introduced a fee-based annual contract this year, most schools did not balk at paying the annual cost of $1,000-$2,000 (depending on the program’s components). Funding often comes from Title 1 monies mandated for family engagement, PTA budgets, or other discretionary sources. As an integral part of its family engagement mission, Learning Leaders also conducts family workshops on-site at its partner schools, either included in the annual fee or paid for a la carte from a menu of popular topics at $500 per workshop. Last year, 5,000 parents attended workshops on applying to high school, middle school transition, study skills, and creating positive dynamics between parent and child. Both volunteering and attending workshops strengthens parents’ knowledge and confidence. “It’s a great opportunity to…have more insight into the classroom…I learn from them,” says PS/IS 180 parent volunteer Dolly Mongroo. Learning Leaders Program Manager Luis Lopez is quick to point out that parent engagement means family engagement. “PS/IS 180 has done great work engaging fathers,” commends Lopez.
For family and community members alike, the power of being a school volunteer is both concrete and intangible, individual and far-reaching. In addition to helping schools in productive ways, volunteers get a small town feeling working within a school community, even in New York City. Unknowingly or not, volunteers “become part of a larger civic engagement movement,” says Heaphy. “They witness firsthand the value and power of public education.”