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PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 24, No. 9, Nov. 4, 2004

UI tutors make a difference in Champaign-Urbana community

By Craig Chamberlain, Staff Writer
217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

Every week during the school year, student tutors head out by the hundreds from the UI campus to the Champaign-Urbana community – to schools, after-school programs, even one adult education center.

Some students will be tutoring one-on-one, others with small groups. Their focus will be on reading and math, the skills that are key to all other school success.

The UI students are part of the America Reads/America Counts program, one option for Federal Work-Study employment on the Illinois campus. As many as 600 of about 1,500 work-study students will participate in the program during the school year, earning at least $8.50 an hour and working an average of six to eight hours a week.

According to Orlo Austin, director of the Office of Student Financial Aid, it may be the largest America Reads/America Counts campus program in the country supported by work-study funds.

It’s big at Illinois “because we like it, we believe in it,” Austin said, and because local school leaders were strong on it from the start, in 1997. That’s when America Reads was initiated during the Clinton administration, with America Counts following several years later.

It didn’t hurt that the program was free for school districts. “When you tell them that they can hire tutors and it doesn’t cost them anything, that resonated,” Austin said with a smile.

The tutors provide additional attention to children who need it, helping teachers make the best use of their class time, said Preston Williams, deputy superintendent of the Urbana School District, which is using about 150 UI tutors this fall. The college students also bring energy, often a “wide-eyed, we can conquer anything” enthusiasm, Williams said.

Among the most energetic are probably those planning to teach as a career, or who realize they should be. For Jill Pitcher, a sophomore from Newton, Ill., being a tutor “is what made me go into education,” she said.

Starting out undecided, with some thoughts about majoring in psychology, Pitcher said it took just one fall semester of tutoring as a freshman to persuade her that teaching was where she wanted to be. She’s now majoring in math and minoring in secondary education, with plans to teach math in a high school.

She was influenced by the kids: “… It was just a really cool feeling to know that I was possibly making a difference in their life,” she said.

She also was influenced by the young teachers at Franklin Middle School in Champaign, seeing how excited they were to be teaching, and how they made connections with their students.

Angie Brix, the student financial aid administrator who coordinates the UI program, said enthusiasm like Pitcher’s is not uncommon, even among those majoring in non-teaching fields such as business or engineering. “Sometimes it’s just a nice escape. It’s away from the university, and they are doing something that matters, and the kids are excited to see them when they get there,” she said.

For students sometimes stressed by classes at a competitive place such as Illinois, tutoring may be the highlight of their day or week, Austin said.

Tutoring on general reading skills always has been the focus of the America Reads portion of the program, but that focus was sharpened this year at the UI with a new and specific emphasis on the development of reading fluency.

“The importance of fluency is that it provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension,” said Bonnie Armbruster, a professor of education on the local America Reads/America Counts advisory panel, who promoted the emphasis on fluency. Children who haven’t developed fluency “can’t see the forest for the trees,” where the “trees” are individual words and the “forest” is comprehension, Armbruster said. They’re spending so much of their mental energy on “decoding” individual words that they have little left over for understanding what they’re reading, she said.

America Reads can play a key role because its tutors, with little training, can provide the guidance and feedback necessary in the practice of “repeated reading,” a powerful way to improve fluency that requires children to read passages aloud several times, Armbruster said. It requires time and individual attention that classroom teachers often don’t have, and yet the tutor can get the satisfaction of seeing the child’s fluency improve.

“The training is minimal, and the reward is tremendous,” Williams said, having seen the results for kids through UI research conducted in Urbana schools.

Jesse Rathgeber, in his America Reads/America Counts experience, didn’t get to spend any time with kids, but that didn’t bother him in the least – even though the senior from Auburn, Ill., is studying to teach elementary school music. He spent the last two school years tutoring at the Urbana Adult Education Center, and said, “It’s kind of unfair that we get paid for it.”

Rathgeber worked mostly with non-native speakers, who were learning English as a second language, and felt he got much more back from his students than what he gave as a tutor. His hometown is small, rural and mostly white, and the mix of cultures and experience he found among his adult students “really broke me out of my bubble,” he said. His experience made him “very sure” he wanted to teach, and he hopes to work in an inner-city or lower-income school.

The benefits of experience with diversity also were something mentioned by Pitcher, whose background was similar to Rathgeber’s, and by another tutor, Chandana Jasti, a sophomore from Mundelein, Ill., majoring in pre-medical biology, with a minor in secondary education.

Brix said she often gets questions from parents of first-year students who qualify for work-study, expressing concern about their student working. Rather than detracting from studies, however, work can often have a positive effect on a student’s time management “and actually benefit them instead of hurting them academically,” she tells parents.

Austin added that having the tutoring program as a work-study option can give students who need to earn money the satisfaction of a volunteer-like, helping-hand experience they might not have time for otherwise. Tutoring also is scheduled during the day, leaving evenings free for study, he said.

Assuming that a student has the personality and patience for the job, “it does give you a chance to do something you enjoy doing, not something you have to do to get money,” Rathgeber said.

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