Impactful tutoring program needs more volunteer tutors

By Caroline Nathans, Director of FLI-Ypsilanti Schools Program

The COVID pandemic disrupted the education of millions of American children, and children from economically disadvantaged families and communities lost even more ground. Education policy makers have advocated for high-quality tutoring, but one of the biggest challenges is finding enough tutors for the many children who need help. Without enough tutors, programs cannot provide the reading assistance that is desperately needed.

One local organization tackling this challenge in Washtenaw County is the Family Learning Institute, an Ann Arbor nonprofit cofounded some 20 years ago by Doris Sperling, a longtime Ann Arbor educator and activist, whose family continues to remain involved with FLI. The mission of FLI is to close the persistent achievement gap in our schools. Led by Executive Director Sharine Buddin, FLI offers volunteer-based tutoring programs in reading in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, relying on adult volunteers who teach students one to one.

The FLI-Ypsilanti Schools program, which serves second through fifth grade students in the Ypsilanti Community Schools, has worked with over 150 students over the past five years. The program has been very effective. Children who were tutored by FLI during the pandemic school closures just an hour a week online not only didn’t regress, but many improved. During the past year, over half the students tutored once weekly for six or seven months made between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half years of progress in reading, which is exceptional improvement.

Earlier this year the program received a generous Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant allocated by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, which will allow it to expand from 50 to over 70 students this year. To accomplish this goal, it will need to find 20 to 30 new tutors.

Terri Ginsburg, former Director of Education at Temple Beth Emeth, has volunteered with the FLI-Ypsilanti Schools program for three years. She says she finds “tutoring with this program very rewarding because the growth that students make in their reading achievement and self-confidence is striking. Tutors are provided with training, lesson plans, and resources so that one doesn’t need a background in teaching to volunteer in this very valuable program.”

Rob Dobrusin, Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Israel Congregation, has tutored with the program since its beginning in 2019. He has generally worked with children at the upper elementary level, and has probing conversations about characters, events, and themes of the books they read together. Rob comments that “when I began my retirement, I was looking for a way to make an impact in the community on a personal one-on-one basis … by working with the same student over a long period of time, we get to know them, their personalities, and their interests … It continues to be a great experience …” 

Kathy Wyatt, the Executive Analyst/Assistant to Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, who also facilitates the Washtenaw County Literacy Coalition, believes in the transformational effects of the kind of tutoring FLI conducts. “The ability to read can determine a child’s life course: whether they are going to have a rewarding life as contributing members of our community or struggle to get employment or meet basic needs. Too often without hope or options, those who cannot read end up involved with the criminal legal system which is shown by the high percentage of those in jails and prisons who are functionally illiterate. No child’s life story should be written when they are in third or fourth grade. FLI tutors can make such a difference for our children, their families, and all of those they will touch in the future.”

What makes the program distinctive, different from most other tutoring programs, is that the program’s director and assistant directors create individualized, highly targeted lesson plans for each student for every week’s instruction. Every week each student leaves the hour-long session, conducted in-person at schools or over Zoom, having learned a new phonics element or other word recognition skill, all presented systematically and with active student engagement. Students also read and thoughtfully discuss wonderful children’s books chosen especially for them.

The other program goal is to improve students’ confidence. In this one-to-one setting, students blossom from receiving relentlessly positive, undivided attention from caring adults.

Tutors initially attend training sessions that explain how the program works, program resources, and use of technology for the virtual program. The training takes as much time as needed to make volunteers very comfortable with the technology. Backup tech help is always available. The majority of tutors are energetic retirees who wish to connect with and make a tangible difference for others and to do what they can to increase equity in our community.

Besides Sharine and Kathy, among those responsible for the FLI-Ypsilanti Schools Program’s existence are Pastor Willy Powell, of Grace Fellowship House of Solutions in Ypsilanti, and University Bank, which helped to fund the program before the ARPA funds became available.

To volunteer for the program, email Caroline Nathans at [email protected].

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