Cynics aside, $13M gift will turn more kids into readers

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2011 - 8:19 PM

I opened my door Tuesday morning to a headline in my newspaper that was a pleasant surprise: Four Minnesota corporations had joined forces to give the Minneapolis school system $13 million to help with early childhood literacy and improve science and math proficiency among young students.

I looked outside. The sun was shining. Birds chirped in the shrubbery. The grass had turned a brillant green from all the rain. And now our top corporations had stepped up and done what we've long expected of Minnesota business: They've ponied up money during tough times, for the kids.

Yes, it was going to be a great day...

So I went online to check readers' comments. Surely everyone would be thanking Target, General Mills, Cargill and Medtronic for being good corporate citizens.

"Ooooh, 13 million for three years for the entire Mpls School system. One CEO takes more in a year's bonus than that," said one reader.

"I would bet this money gets lumped into the general slush fund or for salaries and benefits for teachers," said another.

"The Minneapolis school district is a failed district ... throwing more money at it will do nothing but make a few people feel good," said a third.

Yeow. Tough crowd.

I can be a skeptic myself. But corporate cash being laundered into slush funds and lofty teacher pay?

I decided to call just one of the programs that will benefit from the grants to see if they were indeed going to squander the booty, or help kids.

Kathy Saltzman, executive director of Minnesota Reading Corps, was elated about the corporate charity. The agency had been working with company representatives to determine where the money would be most effectively used.

The corps put "members," or tutors, into elementary schools to help kids who are on the path to failure, and uses proven techniques to improve their reading. There are currently 35 tutors (they don't replace teachers) in Minneapolis schools, but that number will rise to about 95 because of the grants. "We hope to have at least two members in every elementary school in Minneapolis," said Saltzman.

Out of about 60,000 third-graders in Minnesota, 15,000 did not pass their reading assessments. But data from Reading Corps shows that children who receive the group's extra help outperform students who don't. Even though all the students in the program are at risk, seven of 10 passed their assessments in 2010.

"The results we are showing is really significant," said Saltzman, who said they are recruiting tutors and hope to have 800 statewide next year.

Each child is given 20 minutes a day with a tutor. They are frequently tested and re-evaluated to make sure the "intervention" is working. If not, they try something else until they succeed.

Sarah Jesperson is one of the tutors in Minneapolis schools. She says the job is rewarding and giving her experience in elementary education, and it really helps kids.

"It works really well because a lot of these kids don't get much one-on-one attention," Jesperson said. She charts student progress on a graph and shows them how much they have accomplished.

"It brings up their confidence a lot," she said.

Due to the generosity of our largest corporations, three times as many kids are going to get that personal attention.

Lisa Winkler, vice president of marketing and communications for ServeMinnesota, which administers Reading Corps around the state, said getting children to read by the third grade is crucial, because without effective reading skills they begin to fail all their classes.

"If you can't read, your whole world is cut off from you," said Winkler.

Not to mention some day getting a job at, say, Medtronic, or even being able to afford a decent shopping trip to Target.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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