Learning to read, reading to learn: Northfield Area United Way partners with Minnesota Reading Corps

The tutor and the first grader sat side-by-side, working on a reading exercise together.

“Miss Rachel, you have a lot to teach me!” the student suddenly exclaimed.

The tutor, Rachel Miessler, remembers this moment vividly. “I have many great memories from my time as a Minnesota Reading Corps tutor,” she says.

Minnesota Reading Corps is an initiative of ServeMinnesota, an organization funded in part by Northfield Area United Way to meet critical needs and create positive change in Minnesota. Reading Corps is designed to address the state’s high rate of early literacy failure by training AmeriCorps members to serve as tutors. These tutors work with students age three through grade three who need supplemental support in order to reach reading proficiency.

Long-term success

Until third grade, students learn to read — but after third grade, they read to learn, explains Reading Corps’ Rachel Garaghty. If children are unable to develop strong reading skills by third grade, they won’t become the successful learners that they might otherwise. Nationally, schools are focused on reading in third grade, which is an essential benchmark indicating whether students will succeed in the long term. Research shows that students without strong reading skills in third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school than those who read proficiently as third-graders.

Reading Corps, with support from Northfield Area United Way, has been implemented at Bridgewater Elementary and Sibley Elementary schools, where 38 percent of third-graders did not demonstrate reading proficiency in 2015. Contributions to the Northfield Area United Way this year will help at least 50 struggling readers get on target to read proficiently.

“We’re thrilled to add Minnesota Reading Corps as one of our partner agencies for the first time this year,” says Elizabeth Child, executive director of Northfield Area United Way.

During the five years that Reading Corps has worked in Northfield Public Schools, 22 tutors have been placed in the school district and more than 400 students have been served, including the first grader whom Miessler was tutoring.

By the end of the year, this student went from “not knowing letter sounds and being unable to focus for more than two minutes to reading short stories, pronouncing all the words correctly, comprehending the stories, and focusing well for 20 minutes at a time,” says Miessler.


Former Minnesota Reading Corps tutor Rachel Miessler working with a student in Northfield Public Schools.

One-on-one support

Tutors work one-on-one with students every day, individualizing their interventions and complementing the core instruction that students already receive in the classroom. They help with specific skills such as “letter and sound recognition, phonemic awareness, comprehension, and fluency,” Miessler explains. And by consistently collecting data on their students’ progress, tutors ensure that students are always moving closer to their targets.

Shari Sneary’s son participated in Reading Corps in Northfield. She explains that “he needed one-on-one support in order to meet the standards set before him. That type of attention would not have been possible without a program like Reading Corps.

“The sense of accomplishment as our son met various goals and grade-level standards was immeasurable.”

From a tutor’s perspective, Reading Corps benefits students in ways beyond strengthening their reading skills. Miessler says that “they also gain confidence and learn to focus, which are skills that stick with them for the rest of their lives.”

Another aspect of Reading Corps that sets it apart from other early literacy programs is its integrative design — it is delivered during the regular school day and involves regular school personnel. This design encourages strong relationships between the program and the school in which it is implemented.

“Northfield is a community that is committed to its children and their education,” Sneary says. “Reading Corps is a wonderful program that further enhances the existing initiatives and goals of the Northfield School District and the community.”

Miessler agrees, “Northfield has wonderful elementary schools, which are made even stronger with the addition of Reading Corps!”

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