Last week, ServeMinnesota and Volunteer Iowa had the opportunity to showcase their unique partnership with state legislators during the National Council of State Legislators Summit. Speakers and panelists from both organizations shared with other states the way Minnesota and Iowa are leveraging federal resources with state funds to implement Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program designed to help PreK-3rd grade children become proficient readers by the end of third grade. This marks a critical milestone for literacy: students who aren’t proficient readers by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school on time. For students living in poverty and not proficient, the results are even more dismal; they are six times less likely to graduate compared to proficient readers.
In 2003, ServeMinnesota launched Reading Corps in response to the state’s dramatic rates of early literacy failure. The program was the vision of Alice Seagren former Commissioner of Education, who spoke at the Summit. Then a state legislator, she saw the potential to utilize AmeriCorps members to deliver interventions based on literacy science to give struggling students much-needed support to succeed.
In its inaugural year, Reading Corps served 250 students, and has since expanded to 12 states, plus Washington, D.C. Now serving nearly 40,000 students annually, it is one of the largest tutoring programs in the nation. Volunteer Iowa replicated the program in 2013 and is the second state, after Minnesota, to provide legislation that supports Reading Corps implementation.
Reading Corps provides a cost-effective means for schools to reach all students who wouldn’t qualify for other services (such as Title 1). And it’s been proven to work. An independent evaluation by NORC at the University of Chicago showed the positive impact Reading Corps has on students and the potential of this program to narrow achievement gaps by income and race/ethnicity. Panelist and NORC researcher Marc Hernandez outlined the key results of the study: PreK children outperformed their peers on all five measures of early literacy skills and children with higher risk factors, including low-income and dual language learners, made stronger gains. What’s more, the model can be replicated in any setting – urban, suburban, and rural, and because of a robust coaching and training model, tutors can be successful, regardless of their background.
With a flexible workforce of AmeriCorps members and strong data supporting the positive outcomes, Reading Corps is attracting the attention of other states seeking to boost their reading scores. As an example, Serve Nebraska awarded a planning grant to explore the opportunity of establishing the Nebraska Reading Corps.
NCSL provided an opportunity to speak directly to the state lawmakers who are enacting legislation that focuses on third grade reading ability and present a proven solution for their states. Currently, eighteen states and the District of Columbia require some form of retention for students not reading proficiently on the state-designed language arts assessments, and eight states allow, but do not require, retention.
With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in late 2015, states now have multiple options for creating and funding tutoring programs such as Reading Corps. Minnesota and Iowa have seen the benefit of this program in their states, and the panelists expressed appreciation for state lawmakers who have made sure that Reading Corps is an integrated part of their states’ strategy for student success. Several state legislators initiated conversations at the conclusion of the presentation and Lindsay Dolce, Chief Advancement Officer is working closely to support the interest. Reading Corps has the potential to move the needle on third grade literacy on a national scale, and the support of state legislators can make this a reality.