AR Kids Read helps children catch up on literacy

Nancy Robinson and Siobhan Carpenter spend an hour or two a week building relationships with elementary-aged children while helping them learn to read through AR Kids Read.

On average, student scores on standardized tests in reading increase by 22% after just one semester, according to AR Kids Read’s executive director, Kathy French, and reading also helps improve performance in other subjects.

But there’s more – Carpenter and the student she’s tutoring bond over stories of weekends spent roller-skating and other daily adventures and happenings on the days they meet to work on reading.

“It’s kind of relationship-based tutoring,” says Carpenter, who lives in Cabot and teaches a student at Baseline Elementary in the Little Rock School District. “I think that part is important, just to be someone there to let them know, ‘Hey, I care about you.'”

French says more volunteers are needed.

“Currently, about 60 percent of children in Arkansas are reading below grade level,” French says. “So in a class of 25 students, that means only 10 (or less) of the kids are where they need to be.”

AR Kids Read served 136 students through mostly virtual tutoring, during and after school, during the fall semester.

French expects the number of students mentored in the spring to increase by up to 50%, depending on the evolution of the pandemic and the number of volunteers available.

“Children have had significant learning difficulties during covid-19 and our tutors are making such a difference in helping them catch up on lost ground,” she says. “Teachers work terribly hard and have been stretched, so our goal is to support them and provide extra hands – and hearts – to give children the skills and extra attention they need.”

Robinson, who lives in Pulaski County, has volunteered in schools for about 20 years. This year, she is working with two fifth graders at Booker T. Washington Elementary and JA Fair K-8 Preparatory Academy in the Little Rock School District.

“I always had two students who thought about it, but I volunteered for another school because they needed tutors,” Robinson says. “It’s so simple. It’s very easy to do and we’re only talking about 50 minutes – not even quite an hour – once a week.”

This fall, due to covid-19 restrictions, AR Kids Read tutors met virtually with students. There were school staff on hand to help with technical issues and to supervise students, Robinson said, although most students were familiar with Zoom, the technology tutors used to interact with students.

French says a virtual program will continue even after tutors start working with students again in school buildings in January.

“This model works quite well for our community-enrolled students,” French says of the virtual program. “It’s also really cool because we have out-of-state tutors who are extremely committed and passionate about helping AR Kids, so it gives them a way to continue supporting our kids even from a distance.”

Volunteers commit to a minimum of one hour per week for 10 weeks of one-on-one time with a student.

Robinson appreciates the support she receives from AR Kids Read staff, who sometimes attend Zoom sessions to see if there is anything they can help with.

Robinson says the program makes it easy for volunteers to work with children.

“You get training on BookNook, the system we use, and how to talk with kids,” she says. “And, of course, we all get background checks because you don’t want unsafe people contacting kids.”

It’s rewarding work, says Robinson, who retired from her job as a planner for AT&T in 2001 and co-founded an organization honoring Josephine Pankey, a black philanthropist and teacher.

Students take a placement test when they start with AR Kids Read and there are assessments as they progress through the sessions, showing whether they have achieved learning objectives and identifying specific skills they need to work on.

“Different kids have different goals,” Carpenter says. “Some kids find it hard to decode, to sound them out. Other kids can decode words all day but they don’t understand what they’re reading, so with them we work on comprehension and vocabulary, things like that.”

Carpenter’s children were enrolled in a virtual school before the covid-19 pandemic and she was their learning coach while working for a private speech therapy program under contract with schools across the country.

Many of the children she worked with were autistic or had errors in speech articulation or phonology, which she says can lead to reading difficulties.

“Since it’s speech therapy and reading is language-based, it’s all connected,” she says. “I loved it. I love teaching.”

Carpenter took a break from work in 2021-22 to focus on his family, but tutoring through AR Kids Read allows him to practice his professional skills.

“I really like it. It brings joy, the kids are awesome, the teachers are awesome. I’ve only had one positive experience with it,” Carpenter said. “It’s a really practical way to just help kids. Helping kids learn to read – I don’t think it gets any more practical than that.”

Siobhan Carpenter and Nancy Robinson are two of the volunteers mentoring children through AR Kids Read. During the fall semester, volunteers worked with 136 students through mostly virtual tutoring, during and after school. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Dwight E. Schulz