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Tom Witta, Star Tribune

On the Job with Mitchell Olson

  • Article by: LAURA FRENCH Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 17, 2012 - 9:50 AM

Mitchell Olson thinks careers should be managed like mutual funds -- with lots of diversification. After more than a decade working in sales, marketing and marketing communications with Fortune 500 corporations, Olson turned his attention to small companies and start-up ventures, doing business development. Right now, he's consulting with a company in California, doing interviews with key stakeholders.

But in September, he also began a one-year engagement with the Minnesota Reading Corps. "It was something I've kind of been led to," he said. "The last two springs, I was scoring standardized reading tests for Questar Assessment. The tests happened to be elementary school kids, and as I read them I was becoming aware of the difficulties that students were having."

Olson said he "kind of filed the idea" in his mind. "I thought if I could get involved on the front end, I could make a difference. Friends said, 'I could see you as a teacher.' I never saw that."

Eventually, he was led to Minnesota Reading Corps --minnesotareadingcorps.org, a statewide initiative to help every Minnesota child become a successful reader by the end of 3rd grade. There are 750 Minnesota Reading Corps tutors each year, working one-on-one with selected students for 20 minutes a day each. The tutors follow a program provided by the Reading Corps with activities to build phonics, phonemic awareness and fluency skills.

Tutors receive a small stipend each month and are eligible for a limited-benefits health insurance program. At the end of their service, tutors also receive an education award that can be used to pay off student loans or to pay for additional education. Tutors who are over age 55 can transfer the education award to a child or grandchild.

Olson said the education award will "create options." He might pursue alternative licensing to become a substitute teacher, for example. "I will still wear several hats. I see myself being in both worlds -- business and education." It's a diversified employment portfolio.

What does a Minnesota Reading Corps tutor do?

I tutor students in kindergarten through grade three, one on one, 20 minutes every day. This is a very structured program. It's data driven. There's constant assessment and monitoring to be sure of the integrity of the data. I have 15 students -- that's a pretty full day. Especially with the younger kids; you go to them. You're on foot quite a bit. My students are the kids "on the bubble." They need to get grade-level proficiency by the end of the year.

What adjustments did you need to make, coming from the corporate world?

My time management is more finely tuned. The day is structured in exercises and interventions. We're timing them. It's minute by minute. I've had some sick days -- I had to build up my resistance. Overall, the students are more reasonable than corporate America. By and large, they're attentive. They want to learn. In the corporate world, it's a bit of a jungle.

What's the most rewarding thing about tutoring?

I really like the one on one -- that's where you can really connect with the kids. I started on September 4; when you get into it, you're making your own adjustment, delivering the material with integrity. Just the last couple of sessions in mid-November, I saw a couple of students make amazing leaps. I'm not going to take sole credit, but it seems like that extra help may make a difference.

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