Cherry Hill brings in the troops

Enrichment: Arundel Elementary School pupils bone up for high-stakes tests with volunteer tutors from AmeriCorps.

April 01, 2001|By Joy Green | Joy Green,SUN STAFF

At Arundel Elementary School, in Baltimore's Cherry Hill community, children preparing for spring tests are getting some help on their reading skills from a group of volunteers who, a few weeks ago, could barely find their way around the neighborhood.

The nine volunteers are part of team from AmeriCorps, a federally funded community service program modeled on the Peace Corps, which is providing a team of teachers' aides at Arundel Elementary through Friday.

Every morning since Feb. 20, members of the team have worked side-by-side with classroom teachers on student literacy. That help is especially welcome as third- and fifth-graders prepare for standardized tests and the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests in May, which track school progress in reading and other subjects.

The volunteers, who come from as far away as California, Washington, Iowa and North Carolina, work one-on-one with children on reading exercises, and tutor the children in other areas. All were trained in the Direct Instruction curriculum used at Arundel, a highly structured way to teach reading.

After school, volunteers work specifically with first-graders on reading skills.

"They get along well with the youngsters, which is a key in any program where individuals are working with children," said Shuronia B. Jacox, the school principal. "They have a love and respect for the children and, in turn, the children love and respect them."

Although not the first group of AmeriCorps volunteers at the school, the current team is the first specifically assigned to provide intensive short-term literacy help.

"For a lot of these kids, it seems like reading is a punishment," said team leader Moses Davis, 26, of Detroit. He said it's important for the volunteers to try to make reading fun for the kids.

Some of the volunteers, such as Dana Beaudry of Seattle, have done that.

"I like her because she's silly," said Shanarra Owens, 7. "She snaps her fingers on words in the books."

Beaudry, 21, also playfully questions the children in her second-grade class about their responses to questions. One recent day, the active group of children seemed eager to answer anything she asked of them.

"They all have the knowledge, it's just that they need to realize that they have it," Beaudry said.

Jacox said that because team members are spread out among the classrooms during the day, they decrease the student-teacher ratio.

The volunteers are a welcome presence in the classroom, said Anika Lee, a second-grade teacher.

"I need help because they have two different groups of reading levels in the class," said Lee. Without a volunteer, she ends up shuttling between the two groups.

Third-grade teacher Tracey Johnson can attest to the difference 23-year-old Sierra Tunstall of San Diego has made in Johnson's classroom.

"I have one student that was brand-new when Sierra got here. He was sort of timid as far as reading out loud, and he was making a lot of errors in his workbook," Johnson said. "But now, he raises his hand and he volunteers to read."

Tunstall said the children respond enthusiastically to the tutoring. "I think the one-on-one interaction is just powerful for them," she said. "I've seen a lot of improvement in confidence."

Aaron Olszewski, 22, of Valparaiso, Ind., who volunteers in the fifth- and sixth-grade special education classroom, has developed strategies to keep students involved in their reading. He said he asks students to associate something they might be reading with everyday occurrences.

"We try to make it fit in with a bigger picture," Olszewski said.

The children aren't the only ones who benefit from the volunteer service. Olszewski said that he joined AmeriCorps to "get out of the track that I was on. The AmeriCorps is something different, a chance to give back."

"These kids have a lot going on," he said. "Their minds aren't fully formed yet, but they're definitely not blank slates."

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