Despite national shortage, Williams involved in America Reads

In his 1997 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton appealed to the nation to help improve literacy among children, saying “we must do more…to make sure every child can read well by the end of the third grade.” And the Title XV Reading Grants Program was born. This program, better known as AmericaReads, provides funding for community members to give children the extra attention they need in order to learn how to read.

Although AmericaReads grants a portion of its funding to AmeriCorps for its efforts to involve adults in the learning process, President Clinton placed a particular emphasis on the program’s college student work-study component. In his State of the Union address, Clinton called for “at least 100,000 students” to become reading tutors in the program to fulfill their college work study requirement.

In participating universities, the federal government provides seventy-five percent of a student’s work-study pay. The program helps college students on financial aid by providing them with a work-study salary, and the college students help teachers to teach and children to learn essential reading skills. Participation in the program appears to be a win-win situation, but estimates of the number of work-study participants in the program last year were fewer than 50,000, according a November 20 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Robert Buckwalter, College Chaplin, who is also the campus Coordinator of Community Service, organized Williams’ involvement in the AmericaReads program. Buckwalter considers the program an overwhelming success, based on the response he’s received from participating Williams students and Williamstown Elementary teachers. This year the program is composed of thirty-five students who tutor students in kindergarten through the sixth grade. Students receive training from Williamstown teacher and reading skills specialist Mary O’Connor, and they work either in a one-on-one basis, in groups with reading problems, or with an entire class.

Students and teachers have responded positively to the experience.

Jen Curley ’00 said, “I like having personal contact with the children and the feeling of being helpful, especially on a one-on-one basis. I am also learning a lot about education and teaching, simply by observing the teachers and their interactions with the children.”

Like Curley, many of the students who participate in the program have an interest in pursuing the field of education. Drew Sutton ’00 also focuses on the program’s positive personal effects: “It’s a really good feeling when you know you’re helping a child do something he couldn’t do before — to have a positive effect on children’s lives and education.”

Buckwalter attributes much of the program’s success to favorable conditions in Williamstown. The college was very responsive to requests for funding the program, and was able to supplement the federal grant money. Because of the proximity of the elementary school to the Williams campus, students have not faced the transportation problem that has been a significant drain on the program’s budgets at other colleges.

Another advantage was the availability and willingness of Title I teacher O’Connor to coordinate the program at the elementary school, and Buckwalter to coordinate the efforts of Williams students.

In characteristic Williams fashion, volunteers have jumped at the chance to join the program. The program has generated a tremendous interest among work-study students, and a number of students have volunteered their time.

Buckwalter accounts for the program’s failure to meet the President’s 100,000 mark in 1998 as an issue of initial adjustments. At first, the program provided funds for student salaries alone, and not for their training. Colleges and local school systems that wished to participate had to fund the training for the program. The program has now adjusted its budget to accommodate training, by reducing the funding of work-study salary by twenty-five percent, and using that twenty-five percent to pay reading teachers to train the college students.

One concern Buckwalter voices is the difficulty of creating indicators of the program’s success. Because continued federal funding of AmericaReads is contingent on proof that the program is effective in increasing reading skills among children, grant recipients must report on their efforts to the Secretary of Education, who then assesses the program to Congress.

The difficulty lies in isolating the reading skills that have improved directly from the tutor’s involvement, because so many other factors are at work. A test administered to children at the beginning and again at the end of the school year might represent a vast improvement, but this improvement may also be a result of the efforts of teachers and parents, or of the child having matured, or a host of other factors.

Buckwalter’s interest in the program stems from his conviction that “literacy is an enormous problem in the U.S.” Buckwalter notes that child and adult literacy figures are not as high as they should be in such a developed country. Even in a community with Williamstown’s resources, many third graders do not read at the third grade level. Any students interestedd in getting involved in the Williams AmericaReads program should contact Bob Buckwalter in the Chaplain’s office in Baxter, or e-mail Robert.K.Buckwalter@williams.edu.

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