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Teach a Child to Read Program Takes Flight

Rebecca Loh -- The Tech

By Zareena Hussain
Associate News Editor

Over 140 students are preparing to fan out across the Cambridge area next week, helping to insure that local grade schoolers are reading at their grade level.

The students are part of the program Reach Out-Teach A Child to Read, sponsored jointly by the Public Service Center and the Student Financial Aid Office. Volunteers will tutor children in kindergarten through sixth grade, one-on-one, for two hours per week at seven area schools and after-school programs.

The turnout "is amazing," said Emily B. Sandberg, assistant dean and director of the PSC. To have that many students already involved in the start of a new public service program is exceptional, she said.

The goal of the program is to live up to the America Reads Challenge issued by President Clinton in his State of the Union Address. Clinton wanted to see that "every American child can read well and independently by the end of the third grade."

FWSstudents receive full subsidy

Students who qualify can participate in Reach Out as part of their federal work-study program.

About two-thirds of students involved in Reach Out are using it to fulfill their work-study requirements, Sandberg said.

Normally, the federal government picks up 75 percent of the tab for students' hourly wages in work-study programs. However, in the case of Reach Out, Uncle Sam is fully subsidizing the hourly wage for students using the program to fulfill FWSrequirements.

"The reason why this is so exciting [is] the work-study," said Jane D. Smith, associate director of the Student Financial Aid office, co-organizer of the program.

"It's allowed us to put students into schools we couldn't help before," Smith said.

To help fund the America Reads Challenge, the federal government augmented the federal work study program by 35 percent for this fiscal year. The president encouraged, but did not require, that at least 50 percent of the increase go to community service positions.

At the Institute, the augmentation to federal work-study amounted to $190,000, Smith said.

"I intend to spend all of [the increase]" on Reach Out, Smith said.

While two thirds of the participants are utilizing the program to fulfill part of their FWSobligation "there's more volunteers than I thought there would be," Sandberg said.

Program to begin locally

Reach Out is being piloted at seven area sites. The largest location is the after-school program for students in kindergarden through sixth grade at the Cambridge Community Center located in Central Square.

"In the past we tried to provide tutoring for children" by volunteers, said Dawn E. Swan, executive director of the center. "This year we were very fortunate to be picked by MIT."

About one-third of children who attend the after-school program at the Community Center are identified as in need of tutoring, Swan said.

Children in need of tutoring will be identified by coordinators at Reach Out area sites. At the Cambridge Community Center, the most easily identified students are those unable to do their homework during times set aside for them to work on their assignments, Swan said. In some other cases, "parents flat out ask us" to tutor their children, Swan said.

The ReachOut program is augmenting already existing informal reading programs. "This year we are going to be much more structured," Swan said.

"MIT has helped us in so many ways," Swan said, "this is just the latest."

Other area sites include the Devotion School, Jumpstart for Young children, Neighborhood Charter School, Patrick O'Hearn School, Lucy Stone school, and Technology Children's Center.

Institute partially funds effort

Even with a complete federal subsidy of student wages, hidden costs for the Institute still exist.

"MITis absorbing a lot of the cost: publicity, books, man hours," Smith said.

The PSC and the Financial Aid Office engaged in a full-force publicity campaign to garner interest for the program during last semester and over the summer.

During finals weeks, informational pamphlets were sent out to students who would be continuing their studies the following year. From this initial mailing, Reach Out organizers received 125 responses. Organizers also sent out mailings to freshman.

The PSCalso donated $1,000 for the purchase of books suitable for the program, Sandberg said.

Other groups at the Institute are starting to become involved in the program. The Graduate Student Council is planning a pumpkin sale to help fund the purchase of additional books, Sandberg said.

Volunteers trained, committed

Participation in Reach Out involves a long-term time commitment of at least one year. The program is purposefully starting on a small scale to foster this commitment, Sandberg said.

"I'm less concerned with quantity than with quality," Sandberg said. Commitment to the program is also stressed because of the instant attachment that a child may come to feel for his tutor, Sandberg said.

Reach Out volunteers are required to undergo a mandatory training program which consists of three two-hour training sessions. Two of the three take place before the volunteer even begins tutoring the child to which they are assigned.

Volunteers are trained in how to evaluate the reading level of their student, how to make the experience a positive one, and how to select the appropriate books for students, Sandberg said.

The third training session is designed to help volunteers tailor tutoring to their child's needs.

The volunteers are also given clear expectations, Sandberg said. They are given the message, "You are not the teacher, you're not expected to be teachers," she said.