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AmeriCorps volunteers help boost reading efforts in District 833 elementary schools

Newport Elementary School kindergartener Autumn Bice listens as Dominique Edwards, an AmeriCorps reading volunteer, reads to her. AmeriCorps volunteers help throughout District 833 elementary schools. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner

AmeriCorps reading volunteer Dominique Edwards struggled with reading when she was in elementary school, so she knows what children are going through when they need help.

Edwards is one of the volunteers who are in every elementary school in School District 833 to provide one-on-one help to struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade.

The federal AmeriCorps program is sometimes called "the domestic Peace Corps" because volunteers are recruited to help in primary grades across the country.

Edwards, a 2008 Park High School graduate, is an Inver Hills Community College student who's planning to go to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to get a teaching degree. Her time as an AmeriCorps volunteer has convinced her that she's meant to be a teacher.

She's at Newport Elementary School every day and sees students referred by teachers for 20 minutes a day. Lessons are downloaded from the Internet. Edwards said her lessons were already at the school when she took the assignment after a series of interviews.

"It's a lot like trying to get a real teaching job," she said in a recent interview.

Accuracy is not the only thing volunteers want for the children they help. Instead of reading like a robot, they want them to read in a conversational way so the words connect with each other, Edwards said.

Students are very different from each other, she said. "Some interventions work and some don't."

Edwards said she tries to learn about each child so she knows their favorite colors and the name of their pets. If they are interested in space, she tries to find reading materials about stars and astronomy.

Pullman Elementary School Principal Ed Ross said one of the best things about the program is that AmeriCorps is one more way for children to build good relationships with caring adults. The instructional material is targeted and repeatable. Information about reading sessions are shared with teachers.

Math Corp teachers, for students in grades 4-8, are also working in Armstrong Elementary School and all four District 833 middle schools, according to Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

"We are fortunate to have this opportunity for the students," he said.

AmeriCorps started in 2003 in Head Start programs on the premise that if children don't read well by third grade, they will struggle in school.

After qualifying for the program and receiving training, volunteers are given a small stipend for their time and can earn up to $5,000 in scholarships for their own education so it's popular with college students. Health insurance is also available.

Sheila Kahlert is an AmeriCorps reading volunteer at Pullman. Retired from the Wilder Foundation and a former parochial school teacher, she enjoys being with students again.

Kahlert said she's only doing what classroom teachers would do if they had time.

Pullman teachers have been flexible and cooperative, Kahlert said. "I've learned so much from them and there's a real sense of community here."

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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