Volunteer Tutors Help Struggling Kids Boost Reading Scores

As back-to-school fervor takes over in August, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of new backpacks, fresh books and supplies, and our dreams for the kids going through the school’s front door.

In all that commotion, sobering facts can be overlooked.

In central Iowa, 23 percent of students are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade—making them four times more likely to drop out of school before earning their high school diploma.

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In an effort to increase graduation rates in the community, United Way of Central Iowa has been focusing on early childhood education. Before third grade, students are learning to read. But after third grade, they must read to learn. Once they fall behind, it’s nearly impossible to catch up.

In response, United Way of Central Iowa launched READ to SUCCEED—a community-wide call to action—in 2016. With a focus on reading-based strategies, the goal is for 90 percent of central Iowa students to read proficiently at the end of third grade by 2020.

After one year of the community awareness campaign, central Iowa students involved with READ to SUCCEED have shown significant improvements, including:

  • 98 percent of students in the Power Read program demonstrated significant improvements in reading. The program, which pairs reading mentors with elementary students to read together 30 minutes each week, engaged 250 new volunteers.
  • In the Book Buddy program, preschool participants saw a 66 percent increase in print literacy skills in the past school year. More than 200 volunteers were engaged as reading mentors at six early learning centers throughout central Iowa. 
  • In June, Des Moines received the prestigious All American City Award, which honors the community’s work in eliminating barriers faced by children from low-income families on the path to becoming proficient readers. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading noted that kindergarten students who met the benchmarks of school readiness increased to 50 percent from 29 percent in 2015.
  • More than 40,000 books and 10,000 literacy kits went to children and child care centers to build literacy skills.
  • A community-wide advertising campaign encouraged parents and caregivers to get with kids and “READ TOGETHER at least 15 minutes every day,” with multiple examples of adults and children reading together in various settings.

“These impressive results, especially the improved skills of the children who read with mentors, show that our efforts to engage the whole community in READ to SUCCEED are working,” said Elisabeth Buck, president of United Way of Central Iowa.

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As part of the community-wide call to action, United Way of Central Iowa is asking parents, caregivers, and volunteers to read together with a child for 15 minutes every day, a call informed by research showing that the engagement of a caring adult matters.

For more information, visit read2succeed.org for tips and tools to encourage reading between adults and kids, as well as opportunities for volunteers and local businesses to get more involved.