Work-study program promotes literacy in children

Monday, July 28, 2008 | 6:32 p.m. CDT
A Way With Words and Numbers tutor Aaron Dowdall works with first-grader Alex Shultz while Lazareanna Jordan seeks Dowdall’s attention at Parkade Elementary School. The program provides tutors to schools throughout Columbia.

Rachel Moten, an MU sophomore, spent three hours at Grant Elementary School each week tutoring third and fourth graders in math and reading during the spring semester. As a work-study program Moten got involved with the tutoring program A Way With Words and Numbers.

Moten was one of 200 to 250 undergraduates who tutored under A Way With Words and Numbers. It provides tutors for all 20 public elementary schools, Smithton Middle School, three private schools, the Adult Learning Center, Columbia Public Library, Moving Ahead and the Boys and Girls Club. In the 2006-07 academic year, those tutors spent 15,700 hours serving approximately 2,000 children and adults throughout the Columbia community.

A Way With Words began in 1996 as a community literacy program in response to President Clinton's America Reads Challenge. The MU Career Center gathered undergraduate and graduate students to promote increasing literacy in the Columbia community by tutoring children in reading. In 2002, the program added math and became A Way With Words and Numbers.

Rob McDaniels, the director, said the program has more than met the original goals and hopes the Career Center has. He said it is beneficial not only to the young students but to the MU students and the community as well.

"It connects the university with the community," he said, "This is a great opportunity for all of us to work together on a program."

For the learners it offers a little more help in math and reading to those who need it.

"Ideally it is to help kids who are having trouble, get up to level and stay up to level so they don't get behind," McDaniels said.

At the end of school year, the teachers from each school and organization that the program works with were surveyed about the program's effectiveness. Researchers found that 89 percent of the 138 who responded felt the program had helped improve their student's attitudes about reading and/or math. Another seven percent felt the program was "somewhat helpful."

In this same survey, 100 percent of the school's site contacts rated the program as "favorable" at their school. Diana DeMoss, the site contact and principal of Cedar Ridge Elementary School, said she is pleased with the program within her school.

"I think having the tutors here on a consistent basis is powerful in a sense that it gives our students one-on-one help in areas that they may be slow to progress in," DeMoss said. "Those MU students can become a very powerful resource for the teacher."

MU students do not earn college credit, but there are other benefits. It presents a way for education majors to get into public schools early. For any student who is interested, it can be an outlet to give back to the community and acquire community service hours. Forty-nine percent of the tutors are paid through federal work-study funding, and 51 percent are volunteers.

While it is a work-study program for Moten, a tutor at Grant Elementary, she said the real reward is giving back to the community.

"People helped me with this stuff, too," she said, "Why not help back and give them a helping hand?"

While Moten enjoys helping these students, she said being involved also helped her.

"One day it was hailing. Just because it was bad weather, I could have easily said I didn't want to come in, but I am always motivated to go," Moten said, "It helps me put my stresses aside to help someone else out."

Also involved are 20 graduate students who work as site coordinators. The students serve not only as tutors but also as contacts between the program office and the school. They coordinate the scheduling and placement of the tutors.

The site coordinators also run the initial four-hour training for the tutors. While in the program, they also work with the tutors once every other week for ongoing training with more specific goals.

Aaron Dowdall, site coordinator for Parkade Elementary School, said for example at the end of the school year he talked to his tutors about how to close relationships with the children.

Between tutoring and his site coordinator responsibilities Dowdall spends around six hours a week at Parkade Elementary School. He said the coordinating responsibilities have given him skills that could be useful in a human resources job in the future. But more than anything he's enjoyed giving back to his community.

Dowdall also said it has been rewarding to not only help the community, but also the students and teachers.

"I think a lot of these kids don't get the specific attention that they need. Both as far as being children and needing attention from adults and also helping them academically," Dowdall said. "I think the teachers are doing a great job, but this enhances the work they are doing."

Although the program continues to grow, it has hit one main roadblock: funding.

MU compensates McDaniels, the director, and some students are compensated through the federal work-study program. But McDaniels said they are trying to raise funding to recognize these students who are volunteering their time to serve the community. For example, the MU Parent's Association donated $2,000 this year to be used for a scholarship for tutors.

DeMoss, of Cedar Ridge Elementary, hopes A Way With Words and Numbers finds the donations to keep the program going strong.

"We think it's a great program and we hope that they continue," she said. "We know that their funding is not what it has been in the past. Any support that they could get would be a benefit for the students in our school."


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