Words matter. Especially if you can’t read them. Students who fall behind on reading at the beginning, and who stay behind for lack of extra help, face a grim future – and not just in academics. If they’re behind in fourth grade, only one in eight of them will ever catch up to grade level. The rest are at risk of dropping out of school. Eight out of 10 juvenile offenders have trouble reading. Six of 10 prison inmates can’t read. Those are the stats at the start of the Read2Me Tutor Handbook, and they’re the reason Tacomans have been so tenacious about keeping their reading tutorial program alive. Tacomans know the cost, in crime and unproductive lives, of letting kids fail. Pragmatic to the core, Tacomans know that if they invest 45 minutes a week in helping a kid learn to read, they’re building stronger students, kids who can succeed and contribute to the community. To do that, they founded SMART in 1988, and went into elementary schools to help catch kids up. SMART became Werlin Reading, which merged with Pierce County Reading Foundation and rebranded itself as the snappier Read2Me. Over the past few years, the program faltered until Tacoma Community House stepped in. “Basically, Read2Me had become an orphan, and we adopted it,” said Community House Executive Director Liz Dunbar. “It’s not foster care. It’s adoption.” In 2007, the optimists running the program tried to double it in size, a natural effort, given the value of its successes. “That was not sustainable,” Dunbar said. “They grew too fast, and then they shut down.” Stalwarts rounded up money to keep the volunteering going, looked for a new agency home and thought they’d found it in Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
The mentorship was a match, but the background check, designed for volunteers who will be spending time alone with children, was too stringent. They looked next for a good match with the literacy element, and tutors Peter Darling and Julia Garnett approached Tacoma Community House. Dunbar saw the match. For over a century people new to this country have come to Community House to learn the language and skills to become productive citizens. In 2011, Community House adopted Read2Me, which was operating at McCarver and Roosevelt elementary schools. “We have over 115 students, and we are exactly at 100 tutors,” said Mark Rud, Americorps Read2Me program specialist. Some tutors work at both schools, and some work with more than one child. The program is stable now, and ready to reach more kids. Tacoma Public Schools and Community House are expanding it to Mann and Manitou Park elementary school. Like McCarver and Roosevelt, they serve many children whose parents do not speak English as a first language, who may have poor reading skills or who may not have books in the home. This is why you are reading this story: They would like to recruit 70 more tutors. They hope dozens of people will come to an orientation from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 12 at Community House, 1314 S. ‘L’ St. You don’t have to be the reincarnation of Maria Montessori to join. “We are looking for someone who likes to work with children, wants to help the community and thinks the best way to do that is through education,” Rud said. “You don’t have to be a reading specialist or have any reading background,” Dunbar said. “You do have to be reliable.” The program, they said, is structured to match the reading instruction in the classroom. Volunteers learn what to do and how to do it. When they need help, there’s a specialist in the room. “It’s 45 minutes, once a week. All the materials are provided by the schools and the Read2Me coordinator,” Rud said. “There is always someone there to monitor.” When Rud was new to the program, he worried that, because teachers pick the students who need the most help, there might be some stigma attached to being called out of class for the sessions. Not so. “They see it as a privilege,” Dunbar said. One easy test proves that. When a child is absent and the tutor is there, teachers ask if anyone would like to go to the session. “All the hands go up,” Rud said. “They see this as something students want to be a part of.” They hope more adults would like to be part of it, too.