Changing lives one book at a time
Yet. A small word with big potential. That’s what Rich Favaro tells the young elementary school readers he is tutoring.
I don’t know the word “triangular,” they say. Or “camouflage.” You don’t yet, he says.
And so it went one morning at Thew Elementary School with Ka’Marion Dixon, a third grader armed with dimples and determination, and Favaro, a retired tech executive turned volunteer tutor with the city’s AARP Foundation Experience Corps program.
Seated across the table from Favaro, Dixon opened a book titled “Art Around Us” and dove in. Reading aloud, the boy stumbled over words like “mural” and “mold,” but sailed ahead through “carve,” “sculpture,” “potters,” and “quilters.” Favaro followed along with a duplicate book.
The word “knob” was a stumper, Favaro explained, because of the silent “k.” And “mosaic?”
Tough to say and tougher to imagine for Dixon. So Favaro grabbed his phone and pulled up a colorful photo. Then, 823 words later, they were finished. Almost.
“What’s the next book we’re going to read?” Dixon asked.
Changing lives one book at a time
For more than a decade, thousands of young Tempe students like Dixon have been working toward their reading goals and reaping the benefits of a partnership between the city and the national AARP Foundation Experience Corps program.
Dixon isn’t reading at grade level – not yet – but he’s closer with every tutoring session.
The early literacy skills program matches volunteers ages 50 and older with elementary-age students in need. The program is vital for young students in kindergarten through third grade. In Arizona, students must show proficiency in reading to move on to fourth grade.
The need for volunteers is also great. Every year, more than 500 Tempe children who are at risk wait to be paired with Experience Corps volunteers. A volunteer orientation is schedule May 15 in Tempe. For details, visit www.tempe.gov/ExperienceCorps.
Since 2006, Tempe volunteers have tutored more than 3,300 students at elementary schools and after-school sites across the city, said Rebecca Bond, Tempe’s Experience Corps program coordinator. Educators credit the program for improving reading skills as well as boosting students’ self-confidence.
During the 2016-2017 school year, 98 percent of students who worked with tutors improved in fluency, with 69 percent at or above grade level by the end of the school year.
“This dedicated group of community volunteers is like none other,” said Christine Busch, superintendent of the Tempe Elementary School District. “They are as committed as district employees in the sense that they are consistently reliable and passionate in improving student achievement.”
The Experience Corps program supports the City of Tempe’s larger Education Roadmap plan, which seeks to improve the lives of all Tempe children and enhance their education cradle to career with wide-ranging programs and initiatives. Research shows that third grade reading scores are one of the best predictors of future academic success, making Experience Corps an important component of the Education Roadmap.
In addition, Experience Corps aligns with the city’s commitment to its seniors to provide meaningful volunteer opportunities and to the My Brother’s Keeper initiative that seeks to fill education and other gaps for boys and young men of color.
Sweet Sound of Success
On a recent day at Thew Elementary, a half-dozen tutors worked with boys and girls in a classroom that was empty but so full. Fingers moved across pages, voices clattered with words big and small, imaginations drifted from superheroes to sharks to sculptors. As one book opened, another closed, filling young readers with possibility and pride.
This was exactly the kind of volunteer work Favaro was looking for when he retired from the tech industry. He wasn’t content to simply write a check; he wanted something meaningful and hands-on.
“It was by far the most rewarding thing I could find,” said Favaro, 65, a Tempe resident. “And it worked out to be exactly that.”
Now in his eighth year, Favaro has learned how to finesse readers of all levels.
Sometimes it’s with humor, calling the kids Henry or Henrietta Waddles when they lose focus. “Henry, are we here to read or are we here to talk?” he asks.
Sometimes it’s with logic. He tells the kid who dreams of one day owning a Lamborghini that he will have to read a manual to get his driver’s license.
Sometimes, it’s with patience. The kid who squirms in his chair and shows no interest in his book gets an extra dose. “When I get a tough kid, I just say to myself ‘This is going to be their best 30 minutes of the day’,” he said. “And I can’t prove that. But it’s one-on-one and I care.”
That one-on-one attention drives kids who started the school year with a 200-word book to end it with a 1,200-word book. Results like that keep driving Favaro.
“One of my kids is going to finish high school that wouldn’t have, one of them is going to go to college that wouldn’t have,” he said. “I will never know. But if a kid goes to college that wouldn’t have, think of what a difference that makes in his life.”
Not afraid to fail
Volunteer Mary Valikai is in her eighth year with Experience Corps. With a background in early childhood education, tutoring is a perfect fit. But the things that don’t show up on a resume – encouragement, support, smiles – seem to be all that matter to her students.
A young girl greeting Valikai in the classroom eagerly gave the tutor a side hug and then got down to work. Words like “signal” and “siren” tripped her up, but Valikai told her to keep at it.
“I love your self-correction,” she said.
Valikai knows firsthand that students’ reading skills are improving but there’s so much more: there’s the girl who isn’t afraid to fail, the boy with more confidence.
“It’s just so exciting to work with children and see the changes,” she said.
Thew Principal Marissa Schneckloth sees the “tremendous impact” in students’ lives.
“They build wonderful relationships with the students and help build their confidence and reading skills,” she said. “The students are always excited and glow when their volunteer picks them up from class.
“It is such valuable time in the child's education both emotionally and academically, it truly makes a lifelong impression on each child.”
The same could be said for the impact students make in volunteers’ lives.
“You get really attached to these dudes,” Favaro said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I probably don’t shed at least one tear and have at least one really good belly laugh.”
Tempe’s Experience Corps is seeking volunteers and will hold an orientation May 15. No previous experience is necessary. Volunteers commit to four hours a week during the school year. For more information, visit www.tempe.gov/ExperienceCorps.