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Minnesota Legislature

In-school reading tutor program aims to increase its impact

A statewide tutoring program that helps thousands of elementary students get on track with their reading is vying for a noticeable boost in state funding that supporters say would help the organization service many more struggling readers.

Rep. Anna Wills (R-Apple Valley) and Rep. Connie Bernardy (DFL-Fridley) sponsor nearly identical legislation — HF568 and HF674, respectively — that would appropriate more than $9 million in each of the next two years to the Minnesota Reading Corps program.

The bills were held over Wednesday by the House Education Finance Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

Sen. Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury) sponsors SF607, the companion to Wills’ bill. It awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee. Bernardy’s bill has no Senate companion.

Minnesota Reading Corps, which organizes, trains and partners about 1,000 tutors with 700 schools to work with children who have demonstrated reading deficits, received $4.38 million per year for the 2014-15 biennium.

Wills’ bill would appropriate $9.18 million in each of the next two fiscal years. Bernardy’s bill would appropriate $9.08 million in Fiscal Year 2016 and $10.9 million in Fiscal Year 2017.

Reaching 15,000 students

The organization is a subsidiary of ServeMinnesota, the state version of AmeriCorps. Tutors receive modest stipends at the end of the school year that generally amount to $5,500 and can be applied to college loans.

State funding for Minnesota Reading Corps is paired with matching federal dollars that allows the program to partner with schools in reaching out to more than 15,000 students per year who struggle to reach reading proficiency baselines. That makes it the largest AmeriCorps-affiliated tutoring program in the nation.

The program targets children struggling with reading who have not yet been identified as requiring special education support, but is often used as an intervention program, said Hannah Davis, a tutor for the program and graduate student at the University of Minnesota.

“This program reaches kids who are leaning on that support early on that can keep them from having to be in special education later on down the line,” said Davis, who plans to obtain her teaching license in elementary special education. She spends five days a week at Highwood Hills Elementary in St. Paul tutoring a caseload of 15 students per semester.

“The consistency of the program is the key, because it really helps the kids develop a sense of self as they are improving their reading skills.”

Dramatic improvement

In schools like Highland Elementary in Columbia Heights, students working with reading corps tutors are not just surviving, but thriving, said Principal Michele DeWitt.

“Reading Corps really benefits our students who use it,” said DeWitt, who added that two locally-based tutors come to the school and work with students in one-on-one settings.

Those students end up with reading skills proficiency (measured by state comprehensive assessment exams) at a rate of 75 percent, compared to their non-Reading Corps peers, who average 60 percent proficiency, she added.

Although some who testified about the success of the program often relied on anecdotal tales of success, others added some quantifiable context.

According to a series of studies commissioned by education data analyst David Heistad, the Minnesota Reading Corps program saves about $9 million annually in special education costs.

Heistad said data suggests that students participating in the program are nearly three times less likely to be referred to special education because of the strides the program has helped them make in developing their reading skills.

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