Billy Cerullo stands at the front of the classroom at Drew Elementary in Ward 7 one chilly morning in January. The fresh-faced 23-year-old wears his work uniform—a blue polo with a red, black, and blue AmeriCorps insignia patch—and writes helpful tips for his team of volunteers-in-training on the blackboard behind him.
Ask open-ended questions. Wait five to seven seconds before helping. If the students give incomplete answers, try saying something like, “Can you tell me more?” Discuss the book before, during, and after reading.
The volunteers settle into pint-sized chairs at big rectangular tables and start their prep work. Most of these adults began their careers—some teaching in public city schools in D.C. and Baltimore—before Cerullo was born. But as long as they show up twice a week for training to become tutors through Reading Partners, an offshoot of the federal volunteer corps program, AmeriCorps, he’s the one in charge.
Reading Partners staffers who specialize in reading education train AmeriCorps members over several weeks; this includes a crash course in literacy best practices and one-on-one tutoring techniques. After that, these members teach groups of unpaid volunteers and lead classrooms as the volunteers work with students. On average, there is one AmeriCorps member for every 38 unpaid volunteers.
Cerullo began his position as site coordinator for Drew’s Reading Partners program last summer with some knowledge of the school; he tutored there a few afternoons a week while he worked at a lobbying firm, his first post-college job. Many of his fellow Reading Partners members also had experience tutoring in D.C. schools prior to becoming AmeriCorps members, and Cerullo says the training allowed him plenty of time to begin building relationships with Drew’s teachers and families.
Programs like Reading Partners have been criticized for their use of unpaid and quickly trained volunteers. Under this model, students are typically selected for the program by their schools if they test six months to two years below grade level, and meet their tutors twice a week for 45 minutes during their regular language arts class. But there’s a growing body of research that says this arrangement can effectively reduce achievement gaps in reading.
Muriel Bowser’s administration thinks so, too: The mayor and D.C. Public Schools announced last year that $20 million in District funds would be dedicated to closing the education achievement gap, specifically by targeting the District’s black and Latino males. The Empowering Males of Color initiative features a controversial plan to build an all-boys college preparatory school in Ward 7 ; targeted grants to DCPS schools, including $1.7 million in “innovation grants” for non-traditional enrichment and support programs at 16 schools; and 500 new unpaid literacy volunteers. The Bowser administration is turning to Reading Partners and a similar organization, Literacy Labs, to recruit them.
The District has one of the worst achievement gaps by race in the country, and some of the worst reading and math scores overall. Recent tests results of third- through eighth-graders revealed that just 25 percent of all students, in both DCPS and charter schools, are meeting or exceeding grade level expectations in English, results DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson called “sobering.” Nearly 50 percent of the District’s black and Latino boys read below grade level by fourth grade.
D.C. is also home to many literacy nonprofits and young professionals, college students, and retirees eager to volunteer at them. Some, like the hip literary haven 826DC, fill waiting lists with undergrads and government nine-to-fivers eager to spend Saturday mornings reading to elementary students who receive free school lunches and are often years behind in reading skills.
The models and aims of these programs vary as widely as ideas about what works. But does some Saturday morning “giving back” translate into better test scores and literacy for D.C.’s children? And how can the District measure whether volunteers are actually making a difference? As the Bowser administration targets its attention and its dollars toward one of them, clues to what makes these programs a success—and a failure— can be found in results of the city’s longstanding literacy nonprofits and volunteer models.
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Reading Partners began in the San Francisco Bay area in 1999. It pairs volunteers sourced from federal community service programs like AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps with its own curriculum and learning-to-read philosophies. These days, it follows Common Core standards.
DCPS, in its partnership with the federal New Schools Venture Fund, brought the nonprofit here in 2010. The group says it currently serves 850 students in 14 DCPS and four charter elementary schools with 1,000 volunteers. The nonprofit currently has 50 volunteers who signed up through EMOC rather than its typical recruitment pipeline. That number is expected to grow significantly both this semester and in later years through the blessing of the Bowser administration.
Karen Gardner, the executive director of Reading Partners in D.C., says the administration’s decision to make the program part of its EMOC initiative was “a pivotal turning point in our overall relationship with the city and DCPS.”
“It gave us clout and a stronger reputation,” she says.
This winter, Bowser and several of her staffers attended a Reading Partners training session—the group and several Metropolitan Police Department cadets are all tutors in training. Several studies and even a few skeptics suggest that the administration’s faith in the Reading Partners model could prove to be wise.
The program boasts impressive statistics for DCPS students from the 2014-15 school year: 82 percent of students in Reading Partners narrowed the gap between them and peers who read at grade level. And a recent study from the nonpartisan education research firm MDRC found that Reading Partners participants nationwide added one and a half to two months in reading skills each year from second to fifth grade.
The study received attention from education policy wonks like Robert Slavin, who directs the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins. He is among the skeptics of volunteer models in literacy training: “As a means of solving our reading crisis, I don’t think they’re a serious response,” he told the New York Times of programs like Reading Partners.
His research synthesizes several years of studies about the efficacy of such programs, and the results point to a clear pecking order for one-on-one reading tutoring with elementary students behind in the subject: Certified teachers work better than paraprofessionals who work better than unpaid volunteers.
Still, Slavin says, D.C.’s commitment to the model is impressive; there isn’t much data on cities investing in such programs as a key part of their strategy to both close the education gap and possibly cut costs.
“It could be a terrific thing to do, depending on what the alternatives might have been,” Slavin tells City Paper.
Paul Penniman, the founder of Resources for Inner City Children, agrees—with some caveats. Like Slavin, Penniman is skeptical that volunteer literacy programs targeted at younger students can produce sustainable results.
Penniman started RICH in the early 2000s, rounding up his network of trained literacy diagnosticians and retired teachers from his prior decades-old for-profit tutoring business. His wealthy former clients—well-heeled parents who hired his tutors to help their kids prepare for the SATs or to pass AP calculus—became RICH’s benefactors.
Like Reading Partners, Penniman’s model works by taking students out of class for one-on-one time in both reading and math. Unlike Reading Partners, Penniman pays his tutors.
“If we want to solve the most intractable aspects of D.C.’s reading crisis, we’ll need to invest in luring our most disconnected older students back to school and providing them with high-quality professional tutoring once they get there,” he wrote in a blog post after Bowser announced EMOC. “An expanded volunteer tutor base won’t solve the problem.”
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Cerullo and four volunteers at Drew finish their prep and the kids come in. In the back corner of the classroom, Francis Young reads with nine-year-old Malachi Childs. The fourth-grader breezes through each page of his picture book, about a family of wolves in a snowstorm. Childs has no difficulty reading the words on the page, but Young must slow him down. The beginning readers’ curriculum in Reading Partners is phonetic based, working on sounds the letters make. The next level targets comprehension—concepts like cause and effect.
In the story, the wolf boy has just grabbed his boots to go outside.
“Wait,” Young says. He turns the page back and points to the wolf boy, then turns to Childs. “Is he making an inference?”
Childs shrugs. “Yeah.”
Young learned about Reading Partners through his church on nearby Eastern Avenue in Deanwood. “I love it,” he says. Unlike some of his Reading Partners counterparts, Young never worked as a teacher. The 61-year-old had recently retired from a long career with the National Labor Relations Board and was looking for something to do. “I think in D.C., they need to have more male role models.”
It’s possible for a volunteer reader to become a role model, but it’s unclear how often that happens. Every education policy wonk, community leader, and nonprofit literacy program leader I spoke with mentioned, unprompted, the same problem: D.C. provides these programs with lots of eager public servants who want to play but fewer who will stick around for more than a season.
“Retention is tough,” Reading Partners’ Gardner says, blaming the oft-cited D.C. stereotype—its residents are just too transient. Just 35 percent of Reading Partners’ volunteers from the 2014-15 school year are returning this year. Though that number will be boosted by EMOC volunteers, she’s unsure whether those volunteers will help improve the 80-percent retention figure chapters in other cities have.
Any volunteer program will struggle to build-in meaningful accountability, Slavin says. You can check criminal records, take fingerprints, and require a TB test. You can promise all the free coffee and pastries and feel goods of service. If you’re 826DC, you can offer volunteers a certain cache like donor events attended by James Franco and a volunteer room surrounded by signed letters from the president. But you can’t tell a third-grader that her reading buddy won’t leave for graduate school next year.
“It’s something we spend a lot of time talking about it,” says 826DC Programs Director Lacey Dunham. “We’ve invested a lot of our resources into providing volunteers the best experience they can have.”
The D.C. chapter of the San Francisco-based, Dave Eggers-founded organization—part literacy nonprofit, part cool-lit-kids club—retained just a quarter of its 4,431 volunteers from last school year this year. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a wait list: If you’d like to volunteer to read to Harriet Tubman Elementary students on a Saturday morning, you’ll have to wait until next year, although weekday opportunities are regularly available at 51 DCPS schools.
826 surveys parents, DCPS teachers, and students each year for feedback on its programs. Dunham says the results consistently show an increase in “confidence levels” reported by students and “high satisfaction” among teachers they work with. The organization, which has been in D.C. for more than a decade, is more apt to highlight narratives of creative growth than boast statistics of success. During one winter 2016 volunteer information session, Dunham recalled hosting a workshop where children of immigrants put together oral histories of their families—stuff they couldn’t express safely at school.
“It’s the first time some of them get the chance to tell their own stories,” she says.
“The kids think that you are super interesting and cool, so it’s always nice to get that confidence boost,” says Alex Turley, a sophomore at George Washington University. Her undergrad schedule allows her to tutor at 826 four to five times a week. She often works with the same kids, sometimes in small groups, particularly if they’re working on similar projects or skills, she says.
Turley’s level of commitment isn’t the norm at 826DC, but at For Love of Children, consistent volunteer attendance is required. An unpaid volunteer might meet with a student at the Adams Morgan mainstay just once a week, but the person is expected to work one-on-one with the same student for an entire school year. For the last several school years, about 90 percent of volunteers have returned the following year.
FLOC has been around in various iterations since the 1960s, when it housed abused children, and now occupies two cozy floors of an old building next to a 7-Eleven near a busy Columbia Road intersection. The classrooms are painted in bright colors and brim with old furniture and used books. Student artwork and sweet notes from parents adorn the walls.
Appearances aside, FLOC runs a tight ship. Students and parents must meet with an intake specialist. Students are tested every two to three weeks to measure their progress in FLOC’s curriculum, and they are rarely allowed to work on regular homework. After a student misses a few sessions, a FLOC staffer calls home.
The volunteers in the Neighborhood Tutoring Program—more than 400 this school year—must attend several hours of training in the FLOC curriculum and some of the politics of K-12 education in D.C. During the 2012-13 school year, 66 percent of its students made a least one year of improvement in reading and math. More than 90 percent of its volunteers came back.
The program also has a college readiness program for high school students and an outdoor education center in West Virginia. But Cody Laminack, FLOC’s Neighborhood Tutoring Program coordinator, regrets that they can’t be everywhere—specifically, in Wards 7 and 8. This year, FLOC added two partner schools east of the Anacostia River, but they’d like to add more. “In that part of the city, more services are needed.”
Over the last decade, 58-year-old Penniman, a soft-spoken former math teacher, has become one of the most ardent education advocates for students in D.C.’s low-income neighborhoods. In the fall of 2011, RICH expanded from its work exclusively with students at all four District Chavez charter school and began tutoring at Anacostia High School. That same year, Penniman purchased a home there.
He’s lost five RICH students to gun violence and doesn’t feel completely safe walking 100 yards left or right of his house, but Penniman thinks more about the divide between the west and east sides of the District than he does his own personal safety. He hopes the Bowser administration won’t rule out programs like his, that use paid volunteers and focus on older students in this part of town, when it awards EMOC’s targeted grants.
As the winter deadline to apply for the latest batch of EMOC’s targeted grants approached, Gardner said schools had reached out wanting to add Reading Partners with this money. But the calls she remembers aren’t from principals and administrators. One day, a parent at a DCPS school that already had a Reading Partners program called her. The parent was unaware of the program and told Gardner she was thinking about taking another job to pay for private tutoring. She didn’t have to, because of Reading Partners, Gardner says.
Penniman, the skeptic, praises Bowser and Henderson for tempering expectations. “Generally, the message they have is that the system is making progress, but we have a lot of work to do and any program they come up with is not going to be solving a problem overnight,” he says.
“On the other hand, any time you have hundreds more adults coming in to help kids, that’s a good thing.”
Illustration by Stephanie Rudig