BUILD Tutoring Program Celebrates 20 Years

Pairs work-study and Boston public school students

BUILD tutors and students at the Tobin School in Roxbury at their weekly book club. Photo courtesy of Michael Dennehy.

  • The BU Initiative for Literacy Development (BUILD) sends work-study students to local public schools to tutor children and help develop literacy skills
  • The organization celebrates its 20th anniversary tonight
  • BUILD is co-run by BU Financial Assistance, Student Employment, and the School of Education

When Christine George signed up as a freshman for a work-study job reading to kids in Boston public schools, she wasn’t sure what she was getting herself into. It turned out to be a profound experience. Almost four years later, George (Sargent’18) is still working as a tutor and says it led to her decision to become a speech pathologist after graduation.

“I might have impacted a child’s life in small ways, but they have changed mine for the better,” she says.

George is one of 90 work-study students tutoring through the Boston University Initiative for Literacy Development (BUILD), a program that pairs BU students from virtually every school and college with more than 700 local public schoolchildren to help them develop literacy skills (some math tutoring is also provided). The tutors work with students from preschool through fifth grade at 13 in-school and after-school sites.

Tonight the initiative will host a private celebration in honor of its 20th anniversary, with US Representative Michael Capuano (Hon.’09) (D-Mass.), Rahn Dorsey, the city of Boston’s chief education officer, Robert A. Brown, BU president, Jean Morrison, BU provost, School of Education faculty and staff, program coordinators, and current and former tutors attending.

Since its founding, BUILD has supported approximately 13,500 children, says Michael Dennehy (CAS’92, SED’01), director of BU’s College Access and Student Success office. “Twenty years speaks to the sustained commitment of Boston University, the Boston Public Schools, and the federal government to partner to improve literacy outcomes for elementary school students in Boston,” Dennehy says. “These milestones are important to acknowledge and this celebration is the perfect venue in which to do so.”

BU has spent about $5 million through its work-study program to pay tutors and approximately $2 million of its own funds on scholarships and operational costs, says Mary Ann French, student employment services director.

Co-run by BU Financial Assistance, Student Employment, and SED, BUILD was created in 1997 after President Bill Clinton challenged the nation’s colleges to support elementary school literacy programs. BU responded by committing a portion of its federal work-study funds to provide tutors for the federal program America Reads, its local counterpart ReadBoston, and America Counts.

BUILD not only aims to help children improve their reading and writing skills, but also to encourage independence and self-confidence. “Elementary school literacy is a strong predictor of postsecondary enrollment, so to have BU undergrads working with BPS students is really a level of engagement that emphasizes the importance of college and literacy from an early age, and carries through with other commitments,” says Dennehy, whose office coordinates the University’s Boston resident scholarship programs, such as the Menino Scholars and the Community Service Scholars, among others.

“I think it’s important that our students spend time with the tutors, because they get an opportunity to see that this is a goal they can achieve as well,” says Safiya Sanyika, William Monroe Trotter Innovation School after-school program director. “It’s attainable to be in college, it’s attainable to be at a prestigious school getting a quality education regardless of where you come from.”

Colleen Courtney, student employment services manager, says the tutoring jobs are among the highest paying work-study jobs on campus. Student tutors work an average of two days a week at the same site to instill a sense of routine. The tutors and lead tutors are overseen by three SED graduate student coordinators: Aaron Seligson-Goldman (SED’19), LB Moore (SED’17,’18), and Shana Jones (SED’18).

“It’s a major commitment for the tutors,” French says. “The job requires a special kind of person, because their impact on these kids can last forever.”

Once placed in a school, BU tutors employ an array of methods to help the children develop their literacy skills. Exercises and lessons might include reading out loud, writing responses, literacy games that get children up and moving (acting out a book or a letter scavenger hunt to build a word, for example), writing for the school newspaper, and book clubs. “Our tutors receive a lot of training from SED faculty, so when they go out to the sites, they have the classroom management skills and the literacy training skills that they need,” Dennehy says.

Evelyn Ford-Connors (SED’12), an SED senior lecturer in literacy and reading education and associate director of the Donald D. Durrell Reading and Writing Clinic, says tutors participate in extensive training and workshops on topics like working with second language learners and strategies for teaching reading. She says that some previous workshops have focused on how to do interactive read-alouds using picture books and ways to encourage children to respond to texts through writing and discussion, and others teach strategies that build children’s reading fluency and improve comprehension. “I can’t say enough about the quality of this wonderful program, and I’m delighted to play a small part in this important work,” Ford-Connors says. “As we move into BUILD’s next decade, I believe that the initiative’s efforts to actively engage children in the wonder of books will continue to open doors for Boston schoolchildren.”

“This tutoring looks a little different than what’s done in a typical classroom,” says graduate coordinator Jones, who is working on a master’s in counseling. She tries to incorporate lessons from her graduate studies into her BUILD advising duties. “Tutors can break the students into small reading groups and really regulate what they are giving out to the students. The tutors tell us they are fulfilled from their jobs, that they can see the improvement, and that they enjoy the one-on-one time and seeing the kids develop.”

Author, Amy Laskowski can be reached at