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story.lead_photo.caption Volunteers Amy Meins (center) and Lisa Ferris work with fourth-grade pupils Tramone Pulliam (left) and Daryius Bonds at Martin Luther King Elementary. Both women are volunteer tutors with AR Kids Read, a reading-at-grade-level literacy initiative and tutoring program. - Photo by Cary Jenkins

Lisa Ferris comes from a family of readers -- including her mother, who was a teacher. When Ferris was in the sixth grade, she was a reading champion.

"I read more books than anyone else. My happy place has always been the library," she said, adding that she knew how to read before she attended school. Once she was in school, reading, writing and English were her straight-A specialties.

Nowadays, the instructional designer professor for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences lends a helping hand to those who struggle with the skill she mastered early in life. She volunteers as a tutor/trainer with AR Kids Read, working at Pulaski Heights Elementary School in Little Rock.

AR Kids Read is a reading-at-grade-level literacy initiative and tutoring program whose personnel and volunteers take to heart the old saying that "reading is fundamental" and ensures that today's children have better futures via their reading aptitude. The goal is to help participants read proficiently by the end of their third-grade year.

The program began in January 2012, serving eight elementary schools. The program now includes more than 400 tutors serving more than 800 pupils in 50 elementary schools. Each tutor volunteers an hour a week for 20 weeks, working 30 minutes each with two first-, second-, or third-grade pupils on a one-on-one basis with a focus on reading comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. Each tutor works with the same pair of students from the beginning of October until late March, just before spring break.

Amy Meins, marketing and communications director for Colliers International, is another of these tutors. She became involved with the program when her company arranged for employees to get in a little volunteer time through AR Kids Read.

"I decided to go ahead and give it a try," says Meins, who volunteers at Martin Luther King Elementary. "I liked it -- and I was put in charge of recruiting volunteers for Colliers. And it was easy and so rewarding."

Statewide, 67 percent of Arkansas fourth-graders are not reading at grade level, says Charles Conklin, AR Kids Read executive director. Arkansas ranks in the lower third of state grade level reading scores. "The combined scores for elementary schools in the four school districts in Pulaski County mirror the state scores," he says.

This is especially of concern in that "through third grade, children are learning to read. After that, they are reading to learn," according to the AR Kids Read website. If children have not learned good reading skills by this point, they are subject to fall behind in school altogether.

Conklin says the most important impact of AR Kids Read tutors is modeling and encouraging reading through the relationships tutors establish with students.

"The impact is also evident as 81 percent of those receiving tutoring improved their standardize reading scores during the year," he says. "These metrics are also consistent over the past five years where we have been tracking reading proficiency scores. Unfortunately there are more than 10,000 students in elementary school reading below grade level in grades 1-5, which presents a huge challenge to our community." That's why he's grateful for volunteers like Ferris and Meins.

After Ferris graduated from college, she joined the Peace Corps and taught in Burkina Faso in West Africa. "I taught English there for two years to middle-school kids in a tiny Catholic school," she remembers. "There were no discipline problems at all." But in her second year, she taught at a public high school and it was a different story. "It was not pretty; this was in the 1970s," she says.

Ferris returned to the United States, where she became involved in adult education and worked with a faculty member in the department of audiology and speech pathology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"I would sit in on a class in audiology and the course was 'How Children Can Become Literate,' and I became interested in it," she says. "What it did for me was [make] me interested in teaching children how to read."

Both women feel they are getting back as much as they're giving. At Martin Luther King, Meins says, the kids are happy and grateful for the presence of the tutors. The reading sessions are a treat for them.

"It was a treat for me, and was so easy for me too," Meins adds. "When you catch children when their minds are open, that's the most important skill they need in their lives."

A key element of the success and impact of AR Kids Read is community engagement, Conklin says. More than 96 partner organizations from all sectors of the community -- business, faith, community groups -- support the program and help make up the source of its volunteer tutors.

All school district leadership supports and endorses AR Kids Read and recognizes the value of a mentoring relationship to improve reading, he adds. The business community is especially supportive; business and organization leaders, just like those at Colliers International, often support their employees volunteering in the community.

What brings all this together, Conklin says, is that all tutors and partner organizations recognize the importance of reading and are committed to the program's motto, "Building Stronger Readers Builds Stronger Communities." And Ferris and Meins are "all in" when it comes to that motto.

Meins thinks that MLK Elementary's tutors give their children extra confidence from one-on-one help ... and that gives them extra confidence to push them in the right direction.

"They just need an extra push, and an extra one-on-one," Meins says. "It is fun for them, especially reading stories, and they can learn and understand they can understand the words."

AR Kids Read tutors do not have to have a teaching background. "One of the misconceptions that might be out there is that people feel like I am not a teacher, or I am not certified ... and I can't do this!," Meins says. Ferris admits she once held this misconception and had a early concern that only those who, like her, had taught school would be considered as tutors.

What is required? Tutors need only undergo a mandatory hourlong training and background check.

"The important point was to be there for a child ... and you are giving them your time," Ferris said.

AR Kids Read recent fundraisers and activities have included a Barnes & Noble Book Fair and a Gratitude Express Creativity Contest, in which tutors' students wrote letters of gratitude to a friend, relative or book character. Winning categories were Most Original, Most Thankful and Funniest.

On April 11, the program will have its second annual fundraiser, Spellebration, a unique adult spelling bee with media celebrities participating on the teams.

For more information, call (501) 244-2661 or visit arkidsread.org.

Photo by Cary Jenkins
Volunteer tutors Lisa Ferris (left) and Amy Meins listen as Tramone Pulliam and Daryius Bonds read to them at Martin Luther King Elementary. Ferris and Meins tutor students one hour a week for AR Kids Read, a nonprofit organization that works to help kids read proficiently.

High Profile on 01/06/2019

Print Headline: Volunteer tutors help kids break reading roadblocks

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