Eliza Scholl wants the students she tutors to be excited to learn and engage with their work.

As a literacy mentor for the University of Minnesota's CEHD America Reads program, Scholl helps first- through eighth-graders with their homework and other assignments. Sometimes students arrive with their work complete, hoping to instead play games with Scholl, read books or even sing along to lyric videos. Scholl, assigned to St. Paul's Skyline Tower, is always happy to comply.

"It's just like, you have an hour of my time, how do you want to spend it?" said Scholl, a U sophomore majoring in sociology.

For more than 20 years, students like Scholl carpooled, bused, biked and took the light rail across the Twin Cities to provide tutoring to elementary and middle school students through the literacy program, housed in the College of Education and Human Development. When the pandemic shut down those pathways, mentors had to quickly shift to virtual tutoring, arriving since last fall through their students' webcams.

But one thing hasn't changed: their goal to build bonds and provide essential support.

"They get really excited to have someone's full attention and someone who really cares and is excited about what they are doing," said Erin Simon, director of program operations and training at East Side Learning Center, a CEHD America Reads partner.

Those relationships have been especially important over the past year. The pandemic has exacerbated the "digital divide" between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Students in less affluent homes may not have the same readily available educational resources as more affluent areas. Some students don't even have Wi-Fi.

"Even though it's been challenging in moving everything to virtual," Simon said, "that connection is so much more important than it's ever been."

America Reads began in 1996 when former President Bill Clinton created the America Reads Challenge to help foster literacy in elementary schools. The program, which recruits work-study college students to tutor children, has evolved to include other grades and expand its scope beyond literacy to other subjects. There are over 1,000 America Reads and America Counts programs across the country.

The U's branch started in 1998 and, while based in CEHD, is open to mentors of any major. Those students tend to work at least two shifts a week with one of eight program partners — which includes schools, education centers, residential complexes and more — with the usual shift lasting 90 minutes to three hours.

When the pandemic shut down everything in March, the program and its partners were not prepared for virtual tutoring, said Jennifer Kohler, associate director of operations for CEHD America Reads.

"We really started to just focus on how can we connect with [students], to continue to provide mentoring and relationship-building to these students who were oftentimes very isolated from some of the resources that they were normally getting in a typical year," Kohler said.

Rebecca Nordstrom has worked with the literacy mentors at St Paul's East Side Learning Center for about a decade. She said mentor-student connections are "priceless" and the America Reads mentors do a great job quickly developing those bonds.

"We have students that are getting on [their computers] early, before their assigned time," Nordstrom said. "And we have students that will say, 'Can't you stay on?' 'Can't we do this a little longer?' "

While the connections are strong, they can take time to develop, and working online has added difficulties. Scholl said the mentors need more patience to make those breakthroughs because tutoring online is a slower process.

Laurel Martinson, a senior and elementary education major, said that building those relationships is the most fun part of the job. It is important to her that the students she works with feel they have someone who is willing to listen to and help them.

"It's so much beyond just like learning how to tutor kids," Martinson said. "I look back on the friends I made and the students that I worked with like they're family."

The literacy mentors take great pride in watching their students grow socially, emotionally and academically.

Junior sports management major Jacob Clark has worked with kindergartners so shy on the first day that they can barely say more than few words to him. Once he breaks down that wall and wins their trust, they open up and arrive excited to work.

Triniti Thao, a senior linguistics major, also finds her students' progress rewarding. Anytime one of her students shows improvement, Thao said she is "literally the happiest person on Earth.

"We always say that our tutoring shifts are our stress relief … for the week, because we just get to hang out with the kids and don't have to focus on ourselves," Thao said.

She tries to remind her young charges to celebrate those achievements.

Literacy mentors have also embraced the challenge of going online by using digital tools, such as an online reading platform called Epic and Jamboard, an interactive whiteboard. Scholl said she hopes the program continues to use online resources like these going forward.

Virtual tutoring has also opened the door to other possibilities. Caitlin Ignasiak, the youth program coordinator at Skyline, says mentors and students can also connect virtually in the future should in-person meetups have to be canceled due to the weather.

Simon, of the East Side Learning Center, said it was exciting to have the mentors offer to continue volunteering over winter break, something that wasn't possible before.

Still, the literacy tutors and partnership coordinators are looking forward to returning to in-person sessions when it is safe to do so. Online meetups are not the same as sitting next to your student.

While the literacy mentors wait for that opening, they will continue to build crucial bonds with students by reading books, playing games, laughing together and just being there for them.

"That's what makes this such a special program," Clark said, "and why I think it will continue to be as successful as it has been."

Peter Warren • 612-673-1713