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Well over half of DC’s 3rd graders read below grade level, a key indicator of trouble ahead. Two nonprofit programs aim to address that problem through tutoring. Both are getting promising results, but can either expand enough to serve the thousands of kids that need help?

Children who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade are 4 times more likely to drop out of school. Low-income minority kids in that category are as much as 8 times more likely to become dropouts.

And last year, only only 34% of low-income 3rd graders in DC schools were reading at grade level, according to DC’s standardized test, the DC CAS. Although math scores for this group have gone up significantly in recent years, reading scores have barely budged. With about 20,000 kids enrolled in DCPS in preschool through 3rd grade, and an overall 3rd grade proficiency rate of 44%, there may be as many as 11,000 kids at risk of falling behind in reading.

And that’s just DCPS. The charter school sector does a better job with economically disadvantaged kids, but no doubt many of the 44% of DC public school students who attend charters are also in need of tutoring to reach grade levels in reading.

What many of these kids need is one-on-one instruction, something a teacher with a class of 25 or more kids can’t possibly provide. But it’s possible that two organizations active in DC—Reading Corps, a project of an organization called the Literacy Lab, and Reading Partners—can help. In one case the tutors are paid, and in the other they’re volunteers. It’s not clear whether one model works better than the other, but surprisingly, the program that uses volunteers costs almost twice as much on a per-pupil basis.

Using paid tutors

The Literacy Lab, a DC-based nonprofit, has been deploying professional reading tutors to work with at-risk kids outside of school hours since 2009. They now serve about 300 students in DC through that program. But this year they’re launching a more intensive program that puts tutors in schools during the school day.

Replicating a successful program in Minnesota called Reading Corps, the Literacy Lab has trained young AmeriCorps members to use various techniques targeted to specific literacy skills. AmeriCorps is a national service program sponsored by the federal government that provides members with a modest living allowance.

This year DC Reading Corps is working in 18 schools and preschools, including several in Alexandria, serving a total of about 800 kids. Ten DCPS schools are hosting the program, including 7 that are among the system’s lowest-performing elementary schools—half of the total of 14 in that category.

Working with kids from age 3 through 3rd grade, each two-person team of tutors is based in a particular school. They work one-on-one with students who have been identified as reading below grade level in daily 20-minute sessions.

In Minnesota, where the program has been in operation for almost 10 years, results have been impressive. Students who completed the Reading Corps program achieved an 80% pass rate on 3rd-grade reading tests in 2012, equaling the state’s average, even though they had been at risk of failure before starting the program.

The volunteer model

Reading Partners, a nationwide program that has been in DC since 2010, has a different model. Instead of using paid (albeit low-paid) tutors, the organization recruits and trains volunteers. This year it has about 600 volunteers working with approximately the same number of at-risk students in 11 high-poverty DC elementary schools, 5 DCPS and 6 charter. Students get 45 minutes of tutoring after school during or after school hours twice a week, and volunteers are a mix of working professionals, retirees, and high school and college students.

Nationally, students participating in the program gain 1.6 months of reading skills every month, as compared to only .6 per month before they joined. Reading Partners says that in DC, 99% of students in the program accelerated their progress in reading. The highly regarded research group MDRC is now conducting a study of the program at 19 schools across the country, with results expected sometime late next year.

It’s hard to say, at this point, whether one program gets better results than the other. Students in both programs receive about the same amount of tutoring time, 90 to 100 minutes per week, although Reading Corps students get tutoring daily rather than twice a week. And tutors in both programs are supplied with instructional materials, along with suggested questions and language to guide them in helping kids learn.

In addition to training, tutors in both programs get multiple levels of professional coaching. Both programs also ensure that there’s communication between tutors and students’ classroom teachers.

Using volunteers can sometimes be problematic, and Ashley Johnson, co-executive director of the Literacy Lab, says Reading Corps relies on paid tutors to ensure “reliability, quality, and consistency.” But Lisa Lazarus, executive director of Reading Partners for the mid-Atlantic region, says volunteers for her program have proven highly reliable.

Volunteer program costs more

What’s really puzzling is the difference in per-pupil cost. You would think a program that relies on volunteers would be cheaper, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Reading Corps says the costs for its K-3rd grade program are about $960 per student, compared to a nationwide average for Reading Partners of about $1,800.

Reading Partners’ Lazarus cautions that it’s sometimes hard to compare one nonprofit’s costs to another, since cost models are different and not all information is public. She also says that as each region serves more students, its per-pupil costs drop. But even in Silicon Valley, where Reading Partners serves 1,100 students, its cost per pupil is $1,400—over $400 more than Reading Corps.

Reading Corps is also a bargain for DCPS, at least for now. A participating school’s only contribution is 10% of a faculty member’s time to serve as a school-based coach for tutors. The rest of the funding comes from AmeriCorps, which provides a little more than half, and private funders, with Target leading the way.

Reading Partners, on the other hand, asks each school to contribute $25,000 a year, which is then matched three-to-one by a combination of AmeriCorps and private funds. (Reading Partners uses AmeriCorps members to manage tutoring sites and help recruit volunteers.)

But Johnson and her co-executive director Tom Dillon hope that DCPS’s contribution to Reading Corps will increase if the program gets results. In Minnesota, the state’s contribution to the program started at $150,000 in 2003. Over the years it’s gradually increased, and last year it was $4.1 million. The program combines that amount with $12.6 million in federal funds and $1.5 million in private donations, for a total of over $18 million.

If DC is willing to make that kind of commitment, Reading Corps should be able to reach the thousands of DC students who need literacy tutoring: in Minnesota, the program serves over 21,000 kids. (Perhaps surprisingly, Minnesota has one of the largest gaps in the nation in achievement between minorities and whites.) The per-pupil cost works out to about $850, even lower than the cost of Reading Corps in DC.

It would be great to know why Reading Partners’ per pupil costs are so much higher, and whether there’s some way the organization could reduce them. For the time being, though, we clearly need more than one program trying to address the need for literacy tutoring, even if one model is more expensive than the other.

And while the primary focus should be on helping kids, programs that involve volunteers from the community have benefits beyond that. Volunteers not only get the satisfaction of seeing they’re having a positive effect on a child’s life, they may also develop an interest in public education more generally.

And if we’re going to get our schools up to the level where they should be, we need as many people as possible to take an interest in them.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.