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Former lawmaker's view: Minnesota Reading Corps helps students, deserves support

Several years ago when I served in the Minnesota House of Representatives, I helped launch a proven reading-intervention program called the Minnesota Reading Corps for children age 3 to grade three identified as not ready to read. These are the y...

Alice Seagren
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Several years ago when I served in the Minnesota House of Representatives, I helped launch a proven reading-intervention program called the Minnesota Reading Corps for children age 3 to grade three identified as not ready to read. These are the years when the foundation is laid for reading and lifelong learning. The program is unique in that it uses specially trained AmeriCorps members who provide 20 minutes of one-on-one daily instruction to these at-risk children. The premise was that if we could provide targeted, consistent and measurable instruction, it would lead to significant outcomes in early reading literacy.
The program was validated recently by the results of a study conducted by the University of Chicago. The study evaluated the reading readiness and proficiency of students who were and were not tutored by the Minnesota Reading Corps.
The study found that by the end of just one semester, 4- and 5-year-old Reading Corps students met or exceeded spring targets for kindergarten readiness in all five assessed areas: recognizing letter sounds, rhyming words, letter names, picture names and alliterations. Students in nonparticipating classrooms did so in only one area.
The study also found that Reading Corps is helping to close the achievement gap. Students of color, students eligible for free and reduced lunch, and English-language learners achieve outcomes equal to or better than their peers. In fact, those with higher risk factors actually made stronger gains.
In addition, the program was found to be equally effective in Head Start centers, preschools and public schools - and in every part of the state, whether urban, suburban or rural.
In Duluth, 86 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in the Minnesota Reading Corps made great gains on three key literacy measures, helping them to be ready for kindergarten. A recent study also showed that Reading Corps students are two to three times less likely to need special education, saving the state and schools money. These data are critical because we know students who have sufficient reading skills by grade three are ready and able to learn science, math, history and other subjects required for graduation.
With these results and data, the Minnesota Reading Corps does what many other educational initiatives cannot: It measures its effectiveness and demonstrates a return on investment for the assistance it receives from federal and state governments, private donors and hosting school districts.
Minnesota Reading Corps’ effectiveness is gaining nationwide attention. The Washington Post recently recognized the program for the results it achieves, and seven states and Washington, D.C., now are implementing this highly replicable program based on our state’s model.
Minnesota Reading Corps has helped more than 170,000 students in Minnesota since 2003. As a strategic initiative of our state’s AmeriCorps administrator, ServeMinnesota, the program helps meet a critical need in our state with AmeriCorps members. These members serve from one to four years and receive small monthly stipends and educational scholarships for themselves or, if older than 55, for a child or grandchild. Currently, there are 1,200 AmeriCorps members tutoring 30,000 students in 77 of Minnesota’s 87 counties.
While these numbers may seem significant, it’s heartbreaking to know that less than half the students who need help are able to participate in the program due to a lack of funding and available tutors. Given the program’s success, it’s time the state increases funding for Minnesota Reading Corps so that tutors can be recruited to serve all students who need help.  Gov. Mark Dayton and education funding chairs Rep. Jenifer Loon and Sen. Chuck Wiger agree and have requested additional funding to expand the Minnesota Reading Corps.  
Many priorities are competing for state support, but few demonstrate as high of a return on investment. The Minnesota Reading Corps has proven we can help all students build reading skills for lifelong learning.
Tell your state lawmakers to invest in, and expand, Minnesota Reading Corps. Tell others they can become a Reading Corps tutor. Our children deserve no less.
Alice Seagren was commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education from 2004 to 2011 and is a former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and of the Bloomington, Minn., School Board.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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