Nancy Robinson and Siobhan Carpenter spend an hour or two each week developing relationships with elementary-aged children while helping them learn to read through AR Kids Read.
On average, students’ standardized test scores in reading increase by 22% after just one semester, according to Kathy French, executive director of AR Kids Read, and reading also helps improve performance in other subjects.
But there’s more – Carpenter and the student she teaches bond over stories of weekends spent roller skating and other daily adventures and events on the days they meet to work on reading.
“It’s kind of relationship-based tutoring,” says Carpenter, who lives in Cabot and tutors a student at Baseline Elementary in the Little Rock School District. “I think that part is important, just being someone to let them know ‘Hey, I care about you.'”
French says more volunteers are needed.
“Currently, about 60% of children in Arkansas are reading below grade level,” French says. “So in a class of 25, that means only 10 (or less) of the kids are where they need to be.”
AR Kids Read served 136 students through mostly virtual tutoring, during and after school, during the fall semester.
French expects the number of students tutored in the spring to increase to 50%, depending on how the pandemic progresses and the number of volunteers available.
“The children had significant learning difficulties during covid-19 and our guardians are making such a difference in helping them to make up for lost ground,” she says. “The teachers work terribly hard and have been stretched, so our goal is to walk with them and provide them with extra hands and hearts to give children the skills and extra attention they need.”
Robinson, who lives in Pulaski County, has volunteered in schools for about 20 years. This year, she’s working with two fifth graders at Booker T. Washington Elementary and JA Fair K-8 Preparatory Academy in the Little Rock School District.
“I always had two students to think about it, but I volunteered for another school because they needed tutors,” says Robinson. “It’s so simple. It’s very easy to do and we only talk about 50 minutes – not even an hour – once a week.”
This fall, due to covid-19 restrictions, AR Kids Read tutors virtually met the students. There were school staff on hand to help with technical issues and to supervise the students, Robinson says, although most of the students were familiar with Zoom, the technology tutors used to interact with the students.
French says a virtual program will continue even after tutors resume working with students in school buildings in January.
“This model works quite well for our students enrolled in the community,” French says of the virtual program. “It’s also really cool because we have out-of-state tutors who are extremely committed and passionate about helping AR Kids, so it gives them a way to continue supporting our kids even from a distance.”
Volunteers commit to at least one hour per week for 10 weeks one-on-one with a student.
Robinson appreciates the support she receives from the staff at AR Kids Read, who sometimes go to Zoom sessions to see if there is anything they can help.
Robinson says the program makes it easy for volunteers to work with the children.
“You get training on BookNook, the system we use, and how to talk with kids,” she says. “And, of course, we all get background checks because you don’t want unsafe people contacting the kids.”
It’s rewarding work, says Robinson, who retired from her work as a planner for AT&T in 2001 and co-founded an organization in honor of Josephine Pankey, a black philanthropist and teacher.
Students take a placement test when they start with AR Kids Read and assessments are taken as they progress through the sessions, indicating whether they have met the learning goals and identifying specific skills on. which they have to work on.
“Different kids have different goals,” Carpenter says. “Some children have trouble decoding, making them heard. Other children can decode words all day long but they don’t understand what they are reading, so with them we are working on comprehension and vocabulary, things like that. “
Carpenter’s children were enrolled in a virtual school before the covid-19 pandemic and she was their learning coach while working for a private speech therapy program that contracted with schools across the country.
Many of the children she worked with were autistic or had errors in speech articulation or phonology, which she said can lead to reading problems.
“Since it’s speech therapy and reading is language-based, it’s all connected,” she says. “I loved it. I love to teach.”
Carpenter took a break from work in 2021-2022 to focus on his family, but tutoring through AR Kids Read allows him to practice his professional skills.
“I really appreciate it. It brings joy, the kids are great, the teachers are great. I’ve only had one positive experience with it,” Carpenter said. “It’s a very practical way to help children. Helping children learn to read – I don’t think it gets more practical than that.”