Taylor Reading Corps: Building confidence and preventing poverty

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Taylor Reading Corp volunteer Sapphire Bushway (left), 28, of Taylor, looks at a full-page spread of imaginary dinosaurs suffering from common childhood illnesses with incoming first-graders Carson Morrow (second from left), 5; Dakota Wylie, 6; Vada Majava, 6; and Trevontee Little-Hall, 5. The group explored the book “How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?” by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague in the Activity Center in Heritage Park.

Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR – Sharing her mother with other children was strange at first, but now K.C. Maiale, 6, is glad her mother spends time with her classmates.

“She’s helping my friends,” said K.C., whose mother, Sapphire Bushway, 28, of Taylor, volunteers with Taylor Reading Corps. She works with children during both the school year and the summer that enter the district lacking basic skills needed for reading and successful learning.

“I have fun, I love teaching the kids – you get a lot out of it when they’re actually learning,” Bushway said. “I love reading, and I think all the kids should learn, and with her doing so well I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to help other kids.”

Formed last fall, the non-profit TRC pairs trained volunteers with incoming preschoolers and kindergartners during the school year for 30 minutes each week to improve their learning and reading skills.

Michigan 23rd District Court Judge Geno Salomone, a lifelong Taylor resident, conceived the idea of the TRC because he said his courtroom shows him firsthand what happens to people who do not do well in school.

“There is a direct correlation between a person’s lack of education and the increased probability of becoming a defendant (in court),” Salome said in a press release from the TRC. “I hope this program is the first step toward insuring that anyone graduating from a Taylor high school has the actual ability to perform at a 12th-grade level. We want students to have the actual educational ability, not just a diploma.”

TRC found studies confirming that students who do not read well by the third grade have a harder time studying and learning throughout their remaining years in school.

To help students do better academically in their early school years, TRC recruits and trains volunteers to work with incoming preschoolers and kindergarteners identified by early testing who need to build their reading and early learning skills.

Helping Downing supervise and train TRC’s volunteers is Aimee Woodcock, a Dearborn native and University of Michigan-Dearborn graduate.

“Poverty is really what they try to prevent,” Woodcock said. “So I wanted to do something that was education related, and Taylor Reading Corps is education related.”

Woodcock said the volunteers help the children to start reading as soon as possible, and to build a relationship with words.

“Whatever circumstances are, (whether) the parents are working all the time or things like that, (the children) don’t get that one-on-one ‘sit on my lap, let’s read a book’ kind of attention,” Woodcock said. “What we want to do is foster that relationship, that one-on-one attention… we want them to get the sense that reading is good, and that we want to have them keep reading.”

She said data from the first year reading Developmental Readiness Assessment or DRA tests given by the kindergarten teachers showed that students who came into kindergarten who simply knew what words were have scored twice as high as the expected median score for their age and grade after tutoring and mentoring (with one student scoring four times higher than expected).

“Every student that we’ve worked with has come out at or above (the expected average), which is amazing,” Woodcock said. “Being able to do the summer program, and being able to be around the students, seeing just how smart they really are is amazing.”

Screened and trained volunteers are crucial to their program, Woodcock said, and provide one-on-one student mentoring. During the school year, she said many senior citizens, retirees, parents and college students volunteer with TRC. She said they also have some high school student volunteers during the summer.

About 100 volunteers helped TRC last year, she said, and next year they need 100 more for the next incoming class of kindergarten students needing mentors, since ongoing volunteers will follow their student to first grade and possibly up to third grade.

Woodcock said 25 volunteers have signed up for the 100 needed mentor positions needed for the next incoming kindergarten class.

Volunteer Mary Cline, a librarian at McDowell and Eureka Heights Elementary schools in Taylor, said she most enjoys working with the children.

“The part where you are doing all the fun activities and prompting the reading, but then knowing that you make them comfortable with all the work and they will just blossom,” Cline said. “The more you love them, the more the reading comes. It goes hand-in-hand.”

During the summer, children who have been with the mentoring program for the prior school year may attend either Tuesday or Thursday morning from 9 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. They receive breakfast and lunch. The program started the first week in July and runs through August.

“At first you’re very excited, whether they’re excited, too, we’re all very excited to be here,” Cline said. “You can sit down and relax with them and they will relate to you much more. All you have to do is love them and they’re happy.”

She said Woodcock has given the program a nice pace so the children still have time to go out and play, adding that the large motor skills also helps develop children’s learning skills.

Cline likes having children come in to the library so they can see a book, want it and get excited about it.

“The library is the last ungraded thing in the whole school,” she said. “And they can just pick anything they want. It’s a win-win.”

Bushway said she enjoys seeing the excited look children get when they finally understand something – when it “clicks” and they are eager to take on the next challenge.

She said that one of the children she was mentoring jumped three reading levels in the first four sessions with a mentor/tutor.

“That was kind of cool because… she said it wasn’t the fact that he wasn’t learning it, it was the fact that he didn’t want to learn it (before),” Bushway said. “So we got him into that enthusiasm and we sent them both home with a bunch of books for the summer… and I keep getting feedback and they’re doing awesome.”

Cline agreed that the children are responding well, and the confidence that the volunteers instill in the children plays an important part.

“It’s a shot of confidence,” Cline said. “You’re giving them that personal help that gives them that confidence – it is amazing.”

TRC will begin training new volunteer reading mentor – tutors in August. They run background checks on all potential volunteers. For more information about tutoring and mentoring, call Suzanne Downing at 313-769-6730 or email her at sdowning@TaylorReadingCorps.org.