education, Volunteer Experience

Volunteer to Impact Children’s Literacy

Reading Partners is an organization dedicated to ensuring that children are able to read at grade-level, which leads to success in other areas of their lives. With only one-third of U.S. fourth graders being able to read proficiently, the organization recognizes the need to take action through individualized, one-on-one tutoring sessions to set students up for success.

In this Q&A, Jennifer Harwood, the executive director of Reading Partners in New York, discusses the impact that this organization has on the lives of children – not only academically, but emotionally as well.

Can you share a little bit about the history of how Reading Partners came to be?

Reading Partners was launched 20 years ago by 3 community leaders that saw the need for students to receive one-on-one tutoring to support children who had fallen behind with reading. They recruited a dedicated group of community volunteers and were able to serve 28 students in the first year. 

What is your role at Reading Partners and why did you decide to get involved with this organization?

I am the executive director of Reading Partners New York. I’ve worked in the education nonprofit space my entire career — completely by accident. I earned a bachelor degree in business and always thought I would take the big-firm consulting route, but in college once I started volunteering I connected that how and where I spend my time is the most important decision I could make. I got involved with educational nonprofits and ended up at Reading Partners.

What I love about Reading Partners is that we commit to supporting students who have fallen behind with literacy, and we do it by mobilizing community volunteers. People from the communities we serve execute our programs every day. In turn the program also has a huge impact on them. That’s the beauty of Reading Partners and why I got involved – it takes this idea of being able to create change at a very grassroots level. That said, it is sad that New York City needs organizations like Reading Partners; we are the band aid on what is a much larger issue.

Of course it is important to be able to read just to get through everyday life, but why is it so important to be able to read well? What types of opportunities for success does literacy open up?

In the third grade, children switch from learning how to read to actually reading to learn. It goes from phonics and putting words together to actually being able to process that material. If a child doesn’t know how to read proficiently, they are locked out of understanding their other classes like history, science, and even math. It’s important because proficiency translates into comprehension, and when students don’t read at grade-level they get discouraged and frustrated. Being a successful reader opens up a world of content for our students and then the sky is the limit.

What makes the Reading Partners program different from other education programs for kids?

One way that we are unique is that we are completely volunteer-driven. We mobilize people from the surrounding community to help us address this literacy crisis. Anyone can be a tutor, and we make sure that we have our process set up in a way that gives people the proper orientation and training they need to be the best tutor possible. 

Our tutors are paired with a student for the entire school year, and naturally they really develop a close bond. We have proven academically that Reading Partners can move the needle in literacy for all children. Recently we did a study on the social emotional learning outcomes through a rigorous external evaluation were able to prove that the bond created through one-on-one tutoring is creating a positive impact on our students lives – it gives them more confidence and the ability to relate to people from all walks of life. 

Corporate volunteers can spend the day tutoring at Reading Partners to impact children’s literacy and education.

What is your favorite story to share about a child who has been impacted by your program?

My favorite stories are about our fifth graders. Our program works with children from kindergarten to fourth grade, and students can often be in our program for multiple years depending on where they start. When our students go into fifth grade and realize that they have aged out of the program they come back and are asking why they can’t do it anymore – Reading Partners is such a positive environment and the kids want to be a part of it. 

A student in our program gets so much one-on-one attention that teachers simply don’t have the capacity to give. These are my favorite stories because I’m moved by the impact that our program has on students beyond their ability to read.

Reportedly, only one-third of fourth-graders in the U.S. can read proficiently. What work do your volunteers do to help fix this issue?

Volunteers are the heart and soul of Reading Partners. They come into our reading centers and work with their student one-on-one following a structured curriculum. They are focused on getting their student to make gains and get back to grade level with reading. 

The AmeriCorps program is such a big reason why we are successful. AmeriCorps provides an avenue for predominantly young people to complete a year of service focused on an issue they are passionate about. It is a year-long commitment and our AmeriCorps members are an integral part of what we do and makes us successful.

Do you have a specific volunteer program for corporate groups?

Our corporate volunteer program is called Tutor for a Day. We recognize that corporate America isn’t set up to come in and volunteer every week. Corporate groups volunteering is available every Friday, and we typically have companies come in for between one to three sessions. Depending on what corporations want, this can take place at multiple locations. It’s such a great way for employees to really be engaged with a larger issue in their city.