Minnesota Reading Corps tutor Danielle Doublette enjoys being part of the first school experience for preschoolers at Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School in Minneapolis, and especially loves watching the little ones bloom.

"During that preschool year, the kids experience such amazing growth, both academically and socially," said Doublette, who is in her second year as a tutor. "There are so many things I love about this role. You really get to build a nice relationship with the kids -- they are a lot of fun."

Doublette, who lives in St. Louis Park, is taking a break from her studies at the University of Minnesota -- and thinking of switching majors from design to education -- to work full-time with Minnesota Reading Corps, sponsored by AmeriCorps, which offers tutoring in more than 600 Minnesota schools for pre-K students and those in kindergarten through third grade.

Many of the approximately 1,000 tutors are college students or recent graduates, but there is also a large contingent of retirees (often teachers), empty-nest parents or individuals in the midst of career transition, says Anna Peters, recruitment and outreach manager for both Minnesota Reading Corps and Math Corps (offering math tutoring for students in grades four through eight). The average age of the tutors is 30, but the range varies from 18 to 75.

"It's not really a typical job. There is an 11-month time commitment and many tutors work with up to 15 kids a day," said Peters, adding that tutors receive a monthly stipend. "Many of our tutors are often looking for something different in their lives, but the common denominator is that they all really enjoy working with kids."

Both tutoring programs are data-driven and research-based -- all tutors are trained to closely follow a prescribed curriculum for their students' age group. Tutors working with K-three students meet one-on-one for approximately 20 minutes a day; preschool tutors meet with small groups.

Classroom teachers determine which students would most benefit from working with a Minnesota Reading Corps tutor, especially as the kids approach that critical third-grade "line in the sand," said Peters.

"Prior to third grade, students are learning to read, but after third grade, they need to read to learn," she said. "That's why it's so critical to help them get to their grade level."

A lesson in reading

At the beginning of the school year, tutors typically work with those students who have fallen a little behind in their reading skills, in order to get them back on track as soon as possible. From there, tutors will begin working with other students who might require more help to advance to grade-level reading.

There is also a parent component to the Minnesota Reading Corps program: the RAH! (Read at Home) binder that each student brings home regularly. Every time students master a story at school, they bring it home to read three times to parents, who sign a Family Reading Log to indicate everyone has done their "homework."

"We've received great feedback from tutors and parents," said Alison Jirik, special projects manager for Minnesota Reading Corps. "The kids are really excited to read to their parents and siblings, and the RAH! binders help parents see how much progress their child is making."

Tom Flynn of Minneapolis recently started his second year as a tutor, working with K-three students at Valley View Elementary in Columbia Heights (he spent his first year at Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis).

Flynn's reason for becoming a tutor is slightly different from Doublette's -- now in his 40s, he teaches a night-school class in writing for college students and has observed how unprepared many of his students are to write at the college level.

"I believe there is a direct correlation between an interest in reading and the ability to write," he said. "Minnesota Reading Corps addresses the need I'm seeing much later in students' lives, and being part of that really appeals to me."

While Flynn admits that working with grade-school students is quite different, he said that he also enjoys seeing the growth in his students and the progress they make and that he believes that the one-on-one tutoring makes a big difference. "These kids are hungry to do well and hungry to get that positive reinforcement from an adult," he said. "And it's impossible to be in a bad mood when you're working with children all day."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.