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Week of 16 January 1998

Vol. I, No. 16

Feature Article

BUILDing for tomorrow

BU's elementary school literacy program is area's largest

BUILD classroom

BUILD tutor Karen Martin (CAS'00) works with Keila DeArce (left) and Margie Martinez, third graders at the Kelly Elementary School in Chelsea's Mary C. Burke Complex, during an after-school session. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

by Eric McHenry

Issuing the "America Reads Challenge" in a December 21, 1996, radio address, President Clinton urged that a "large portion" of 200,000 new congressionally created work-study positions "be devoted to community service, and especially to teaching our children to read."

BU has responded to the president's challenge more aggressively than any other local college or university, says Margaret Williams, director of Read Boston.

"In the local area, the Boston University Initiative for Literacy Development [BUILD] is the largest such program in existence," she says. "It has by far the most work-study students dedicated to America Reads."

One of 15 participating Boston-area schools, BU supplies over one-quarter the total number of literacy tutors. "BU has also been extremely organized compared to other universities," she says. "It has set up an infrastructure with lead tutors, and it has two graduate students overseeing the program."

Read Boston is a public-private partnership that gives guidance to literacy promotion efforts such as BUILD, which Williams helped the University establish in mid-1997. BUILD sends a staff of about 140 trained literacy tutors into eight elementary schools in Allston-Brighton, Chelsea, Mattapan, and Mission Hill, where they work one-on-one or with small groups of at-risk students, targeting particularly third and fourth graders. Lead tutors, most of whom are BU graduate students in education or social work, report to the program's administrative advisers, serve as site coordinators, and help train and counsel the younger tutors in literacy education.

"There are many fourth graders out there who cannot read at fourth-grade level," says Maureen Hurley, director of BU's Com-munity Service Center, "and many educators believe that before fourth grade you learn to read, and after fourth grade you read to learn. So if students aren't reading to grade level by that age, then there's a serious issue. The idea of the America Reads Challenge is to get as many tutors as possible into the schools, working one-on-one with children to bring them up to speed."

BUILD co-coordinator Julia Emig, who is an SED graduate student, says it's impossible to provide a tutor for every targeted child at every site, but tutors work consistently with the same students, and in groups that are much smaller than the traditional grade school class. This fosters mutual familiarity and comfort. Additionally, many of the reading exercises are interactive, conceived both to address the children's particular needs and to complement the school's existing program.

"For the most part," Emig says, "the success of the experience is contingent upon the structure that the site itself provides for us to help the students. If we get a lot of support from the site directors and/or the teachers, then we merely enhance what they're doing in the classroom.

"For instance, at the Jackson Mann after-school program," she says, "the principal said that she wanted us to target fifth graders. So we have a pool of about 20 fifth graders and about 10 or 12 tutors, and the tutor team has created a program specifically for these young people. They do all sorts of activities: writing poetry, Mad-libs, reading aloud from classic literature, having small groups of the students read books that are of high interest to them. It's an enhancement, and an opportunity for the children to interact with young adults."

Although its efficacy is difficult to gauge after only one semester, BUILD has been received with enthusiasm by elementary school teachers and administrators, according to Ruth Shane, director of the BU Collaborative Office of Public Education Advising.

"The December issue of the Phi Delta Kappan, one of the key magazines in education these days, has a critique of the America Reads program," says Shane. "Essentially, it says that everybody's out there now tutoring children in reading, but there hasn't been any substantial research done on whether this works; there haven't been pretests and posttests and control groups, all of which are important to measuring significant gains in this kind of work.

"Anecdotally," she says, "the teachers and administrators report that the kids who get tutoring support are able to move more easily into mainstream work in the classroom."

Emig points out that the tutors are students, too. While studies will be needed to demonstrate the progress of America Reads as a nationwide literacy campaign, the value of BUILD to aspiring teachers is already evident.

"In fact," she says, "we've had a handful of undergraduates tell us that they are changing their majors to become teachers based on this experience."

Sara Baudauf, a CAS senior majoring in psychology, says her participation in BUILD has influenced recent choices she's made in preparation for life after college. She hopes to become a teacher and is considering a number of options.

"I have really fallen in love with teaching kids," says Baudauf, who will be a lead tutor this semester. "I'm thinking of pursuing a master's in education, and I'm applying for the Teach for America program."

BU student interest in BUILD is widespread. Through the Community Service Center, the program has been assisted by a group of literacy volunteers comparable in size to its work-study contingent.

"The concern is that we not have more tutors than we can responsibly manage, because we do want this to be a useful program," says Barbara Tornow, executive director of the Office of Financial Assistance.

Tornow, Hurley, and Shane are members of a committee created to help BU handle the logistics of a program of BUILD's scale. Cooperation between departments has been another secondary benefit of the literacy program, and essential to its operation.

"It's very much a collaborative effort and has been from the start," says Shane. " Each of us has knowledge of a different piece of the puzzle, so we haven't had to reinvent anything. We've just had to build -- no pun intended -- on what each of us already knows. It's easy to do if you're not territorial."