Column: Helping children read is rewarding

BY Paul Lucke – Guest Columnist

“The Minnesota Reading Corps.”

I read these words in my local paper one Sunday morning. The article covered the Minnesota Reading Corps’ effort to recruit new members. I was just months away from graduating from the University of St. Thomas and was set to go to the university’s law school the next year. Nevertheless, I wanted to find out more.

The Minnesota Reading Corps, I learned, is a branch of AmeriCorps, a national service organization. Members give a year of service as literacy tutors for children age 3 through third grade. They serve children who are not in special education, but who are still behind their grade’s reading level.  Although the poor economy and my passion for legal and political issues made law school seem the ideal next step for me, I wanted to keep my options open. I decided to apply.

Educators and policymakers have been working for decades to close the “achievement gap” – the wide gap in test scores between white students and students of color. From preschool to third grade, children learn to read, and after that, children read to learn. This means that children whose reading skills are behind at fourth grade would likely continue on a downward slide.

This is where the Reading Corps comes in. Unfortunately, too many children are behind by fourth grade and are without help. Some of these children need help that their parents cannot provide because of language barriers. Teachers cannot provide one-on-one instruction when they are responsible for the whole class. Without the Reading Corps, too many students would fall too far behind.

I received extensive help throughout my school career. Though subjects like English and history always came naturally to me, math and science were a real struggle. Without extra help from concerned teachers and aides, I knew graduating from high school, let alone going to college and law school, would have been a steep uphill climb.  Reflecting on my own experience really made me want to “pay it forward” and give a year of my time to a worthy cause.

I applied in the spring and found out by graduation that I would serve at Bancroft Elementary, a school in South Minneapolis. I was eager to tutor at Bancroft because over 90 percent of the students were students of color, and because the supervisors explained how much the students there depended on the Reading Corps.

This September I started my service. Nearly three months in, I can honestly say it was the best decision I could have made. I have encouraged and supported struggling children, and I can see they are starting to improve their reading skills. I have also helped make teachers’ lives easier by helping students resolve their conflicts, organize their materials, and doing whatever may be needed at the moment. Although I do enjoy the stipend and the education award that the program offers, the knowledge that I have helped to even the odds for children has been my real reward.

I would recommend Minnesota Reading Corps or its sister program, the Math Corps, to anyone graduating from college and considering a year of service.

Paul Lucke is a graduate of Edina High School.