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To transform Lea Elementary, volunteers play a vital role

By Martha Ledger on Sep 28, 2015 11:16 AM

For almost two months, the child I was tutoring simply did not want to read. In the school library, where our reading sessions took place, she would yawn, crumple in her chair, flit around, and make excuses.

I’m thirsty. I’m tired. I have to go to the bathroom.

A good reader in 1st grade, she was now in 3rd, clueless about the sound of -tion or the possible options for final y. One day, avoiding her work, she reached behind my head, jubilantly producing a nickel.

“I just pulled this out of your ear,” she said.

Seeing this, I struck a deal with her: If she would focus on her reading and cease complaining, we would finish each session with a “reward” of magic. Each week's magic trick had instructions, which of course she'd be required to read.

Her attitude changed, but, remarkable as this was, her reading gaps didn't magically disappear. To combat her trouble with letter combinations, I presented the material as a game, which she called “the warm-up.”

Bookended by the warm-up and the reward, she came to embrace our reading sessions.

"Don't tell me," she would order when faced with a difficult word. She was no longer afraid to try. Within a couple of months, her reading had become much more fluid.

Getting children to enjoy reading is the goal of the Garden Court Community Association's tutoring program at the Henry C. Lea Elementary School, a public K-8 in West Philadelphia. The program began in 2012, when one of our members, a 1st-grade classroom volunteer, learned that some students were reading in the classroom but not with anyone at home. If they read at all, they did it poorly.

Five volunteers, my husband and I among them, went to Lea once a week to read with these 1st graders. The teacher and principal, who knew us through other projects, welcomed our help; the children enjoyed the attention and found comfort in our presence. The boy I read with that year always wanted to hold my hand while he worked at reading.

The following year, all the 1st-grade teachers wanted tutors. GCCA put together a group of 16 volunteers. The year after, the program grew to include 2nd  and 3rd graders. This past year, with a new principal on board, 18 volunteers worked with 23 students, including five from a 4th-grade class.

Our tutors spent about 450 hours with Lea students this past year. The cost to GCCA was $522.

We have learned a lot that might be useful to other schools and community groups. Foremost is the fact that community volunteers can play a role in helping students to read. The individual attention we provide is a precious commodity whose effect on children's reading can sometimes feel like magic.

Raising reading scores through tutoring is also part of an ambitious campaign to transform the school. By improving literacy, our hope is that a more successful Lea will lead to a more economically integrated neighborhood school, benefiting all the community’s children. This is beginning to happen.

The breakthrough moment for the tutoring program came this past school year. The incoming principal, Jennifer Duffy, not only put essential program supports in place, but also welcomed community involvement.

Duffy also arranged for tutors to receive an orientation in the school's new literacy program, which is based on a progression of reading behaviors. Teachers read one-on-one with students three times a year to determine which behaviors have been mastered; books are coded to reflect the skills needed to read them. Then the two are matched.

Previously, few books at the school had been coded. A consultant from Penn Graduate School of Education, assigned to Lea, coded the books and created packets for every tutored student, replenishing them as the children progressed.

The quality of the tutors, who are the heart of the program, has always been high. Among them are a state representative, a former education specialist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the co-founder of an online arts magazine, a retired principal, current and former teachers, an anthropologist, a physician, a data analyst, a librarian, writers, editors, and the head of Lea’s Home and School Association.

Those who sign up are sincere and dedicated, enjoy children, and commit to yearlong participation.

As one tutor, Jerene Good, said this past year, “This feels like the most important work any of us does.”

Thirteen tutors are returning this year, which speaks to their sense of fulfillment.

In June, GCCA prepared packets for each tutored student that contained a certificate of progress, a list of free summer activities in the neighborhood, and a batch of books for summer reading. Among those for my student was a book of simple magic tricks for children. She pulled that from the pile and pressed it to her heart.

I can't be sure if she read over the summer, but I think our time together certainly improved the odds.


Martha Ledger has taught English at Temple University, worked as a photographer for La Salle University, and been managing editor of INSIDE, a lifestyle magazine. She served on the board of Garden Court Community Association, whose projects support Henry C. Lea Elementary School, and chaired its education committee. She coordinates the organization’s tutoring program at Lea and can be reached at

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Comments (22)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 29, 2015 8:50 am

I think that's so great that these people are using their personal time to help out the kids and really tutoring is the only way to make sure that kids do well in school. My only concern is always making sure that my kid is adequately prepared throughout so on the advice of one of his teachers I went to the munchmath website and got them to send me a couple of tutors. As parents it's basically up to us to do whatever is necessary to make sure that our kids retain a strong learning position. I think however parents can get tutoring they absolutely must make it happen.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 29, 2015 10:17 am

I enjoyed reading your article very much. It shows the importance of a caring adult just sitting down and reading with a child. The individual attention you and your friends give to those children is more than just a commodity and it is more than just being like magic -- it is magic. It is the magic which makes kids want to learn and is the magic which makes them feel emotionally safe and secure to try. What you give to those children is precious.

As a reading specialist, may I just add for our readers, two important points about reading instruction and its assessment which you point to that are of great importance for everyone to understand.

(1) The fact that the child you read with was clueless about the sound of "tion" or possible options for "y" is important and it is important that you helped her understand her phonics. That is how phonetic and structural analysis ability grows. That is also known as "informal diagnosis" of reading needs. It is far better than any standardized test and enabled you to meet her needs by showing her at the teachable moment. The importance of that cannot be understated.

(2) The fact that her reading became more "fluid" over a couple of months is also an important point to note. That is known as "fluency in reading" and is absolutely essential to comprehension growth. That growth also cannot be measured by any standardized test.

What you and your group provide is an essential element of Everychild's reading development. The most important aspect of reading instruction is to read with children at their instructional level, help them with their fluency and word recognition, and ask them developmental comprehension questions as you go.

As you said, reading needs do not magically go away. It takes time and the magic of an adult who cares.

And even more important than most important is to teach children -- the joy of reading. Now that is magic.



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