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Helping kids learn to read

Minnesota Reading Corps tutor Emily Wold, left, helps Rossman Elementary students like first grader Millie Hanninen with her reading. PIPPI MAYFIELD/RECORD

As an elementary literacy tutor at Rossman Elementary in Detroit Lakes, Emily Wold is making a difference in the lives of young children.

She said she’s there to help those kids who may otherwise fall through the cracks of the system.

The program is for those students who are falling behind in their reading, but aren’t behind enough to qualify for Title 1 services.

“They generally would fall through the cracks,” she said. “We fill in the gap that is needed at every school.”

As a part of the Minnesota Reading Corps, Wold works with kindergarten through third grade students at Rossman Elementary to improve their reading skills and get them up to grade level. There is also a tutor at Roosevelt Elementary and a math tutor through the Minnesota Math Corps at each school as well.

The Math Corps is for grades four through eight, and the goal is that by eighth grade, all students should know how to do algebra.

Why the program is needed

According to studies, one in five third graders are not reading at grade level, and 40 percent of eighth graders are not math proficient. The Minnesota Reading and Math Corps are trying to do away with those numbers though. Or at least minimize them.

Wold said she’s worked with about 40 students at Rossman this year, and there’s plenty more that she could work with as well. She doesn’t work with all 40 at once though.

Once they get to where they need to be, they get exited out of the program, she said.

Wold works for the Reading Corps full time, but there are also part time positions with the Corps.        

According to the Minnesota Reading Corps, the program sees 80 percent of third graders who successfully completed the program — all of whom previously were not on track to succeed — pass the statewide reading exam. This matches Minnesota’s overall pass rate.

In Minnesota Math Corps, 74 percent of students meet or exceed their growth targets, as measured by Measurement of Academic Progress. This statistic is significantly higher than the gains made by typical fourth through eighth graders nationally.

A study from Johns Hopkins University found that only 11 percent of students who failed sixth grade math went on to earn high school diplomas.

But, Sheila Piippo, executive director at Minnesota Reading Corps and Minnesota Math Corps, said that in the context of literacy, research supports that 95 percent of all children have the capacity to learn to read proficiently if effective interventions are provided.

How to get involved

After finishing college in Sioux Falls, S.D., Wold was interested in moving back home to Detroit Lakes. Her grandma saw an ad in the newspaper for the Minnesota Reading Corps and told Wold it might be something she would be interested in for a job.

So she applied, went through training and is finishing up her first year with the program. She said she may apply to work again in the school next year because it’s been such a great experience.

She gets paid a living stipend and an education award, which is money strictly to pay off her college loans. She has moved back in with her parents and younger brother for cost-saving reasons, but she said she’s learned to live frugally because of the small income she now earns.

“It’s really an interesting year of service and anyone can do it,” she said.

Those who volunteer with the Reading or Math Corps don’t need teaching degrees. (Wold’s major was in philosophy with a minor in theater.)

“They do a good job training, specifically on literacy.”

Besides the ongoing training the tutors take part in, they must all go through background checks as well to be able to work with children.

Benefit of one-on-one

The materials she uses with the children are provided through the Reading Corps.

She has different levels she works on with different grades, ranging from sight words and sounds to small stories.

Teachers from each grade k-3 determine the students that would benefit from the extra help, and then Wold takes them out of class to work on their reading. She times the students on their reading skills because they have to pass certain criteria in order to move on to the next level.

She said she works with some students for as little as a month or two, and some students she has worked with the entire school year.

“It’s like that mental switch flipped and they moved on,” she said of some kids just needing the extra attention and grasping the words quicker in a one-on-one environment.

She said one student, for example, has gone from reading at a first grade level to a fifth grade level because it was discovered early that he just needed a little extra help. And he was very proud to give her the update on his increasing reading skills.

“It made me so excited to see what he has done,” she said. “A lot has to do with that one-on-one.”

She said it’s a proven fact that it’s easier to catch up on reading levels if the problem is caught earlier rather than later.

Even in her work at Rossman, she said she can definitely tell a difference between a kindergartener and a third grader.

By third grade, the struggle to read those first few years has often caused a lack of self-confidence.

The Reading Corps program focuses on the k-3 age group because that is when schools are still teaching kids to read, and after that they are expected to know how to read and need that skill for learning in all other classes.    

In the lower grades, she said, kids are “learning to read,” and after those first few years, they are “reading to learn.”

Benefit to the school

While Wold has to apply each year for the program, so does the school. Last year the district applied to be a part of the AmeriCorps program, and this school year was the first year the district has been able to implement it.

Jen Hendrickson, who is a teacher in the Detroit Lakes district and oversees the Corps programs, said that she had heard about the Reading and Math Corps programs and the low cost to the district and decided to apply.

“I thought, why haven’t we applied for this so we can reach more students,” she said.

So based on needs and data, the district was approved for two reading tutors at each elementary school, one math tutor at each elementary school and one at the middle school.

“It’s been awesome for our kids,” she said.

The students in the reading program work one-on-one with tutors for 20 minutes at a time, and the math students work in pairs for 90 minutes a week.

Hendrickson said that since this is the first year the district has been a part of the Reading and Math Corps programs it’s hard to compare what this has done for the students, but she said, test scores for those in the math program have certainly improved.

“So far what I’ve seen, it’s been positive,” she said.

Feedback from teachers has been positive as well, she added.

And it’s not just about test scores either.

“Definitely I’ve seen a boost in confidence in these students,” she said.

Fulfilling hour requirements

Besides her time spent at Rossman helping the kids learn to read, in order to fulfill her required hours with the Corps, Wold also started the Destination Imagination program at Rossman.

She said she remembered being part of the program when she was a young student so she wanted to bring it back to the school.

“It’s very much about them learning themselves,” she said of the program.

Any students at the school can be a part of the Destination Imagination program, and they take part in different activities, but Wold isn’t allowed to just do the projects for them.

She said it was a frustration in the beginning because the kids would ask for help figuring out something and she’d just have to tell them to figure it out on their own, but they have, and grown from it as well.

“It’s being hands-off and let them learn.”

A need for more tutors

The program is funded through the government and grants. The schools pay a very minimal cost for the program, and they provide space for the tutors in the schools.

Wold said there could easily be more tutors working in the Detroit Lakes district.

“There is definitely a need there. There could have been two of me and there still would have been lists (of students that need help).”

Wold said the program has really changed the way she looks at education because what’s expected of kids entering kindergarten is so different from what it was only 10 or 15 years ago.

“It’s been a very rewarding year, seeing the kids going from not reading well … I really did do something to help those kids,” she said.

“I really do enjoy my kids. I see them each day.”

Detroit Lakes is still in need of tutors, so those interested in learning more about Minnesota Reading and Math Corps, or to apply to serve as a tutor, can visit or, or contact 866-859-2825.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.