Since its founding in 2003, Reading Power has tutored more than 2,200 children. As the organization expands its programs this year, CEO and Chairman Kathy McFarland, Ph.D., hopes the pool of tutors will grow as well.
“We’re always looking for more tutors,” McFarland says. “When I joined Reading Power, I thought I was doing it to help kids but I got so much more than I gave. Our students are the greatest kids in the world, and I say that as a grandmother.”
Reading Power was founded by reading specialist Mary Jane N. Hender, Ed.D., and literacy activist Dr. Reverend Gordon Butcher as an early intervention program to give individual attention to students in need of literacy services in North Chicago schools. Hender conducted research and developed a tutoring method that incorporates facets of Reading Recovery, an internationally renowned early intervention literacy program created by educational researcher Marie Clay. She then turned it into an innovative program that anyone can volunteer for with just a bit of training. Today, the program provides one-toone literacy tutoring for elementary children from underserved families in both North Chicago and Zion.
“We’re looking at schools where less than half of the students are reading at grade level in third grade,” McFarland says. “We’re in all elementary schools in North Chicago, and, more recently, expanded to Zion. So far, it’s working quite well.”
Last year, 186 volunteers tutored 254 pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first, and second grade students.
“If you start school behind, you have a hard road ahead of you. So for kids that are behind, for whatever reason, we give them the boost to catch up,” McFarland says.
This year, the United Way Women’s Leadership Committee gave the organization a grant to pilot a pre-kindergarten program in North Chicago. The program will be complimentary to the already proven kindergarten through second grade method.
“We’re helping kids prepare to learn to read, and it’s so important that our kids get what they need as a continuum from pre-kindergarten to second grade,” McFarland says.
McFarland worked her entire career as a chemist and researcher, her last role as divisional vice president at Abbott. She retired to care for her granddaughters and a friend convinced her to volunteer with Reading Power.
“I went, I saw the program, and that’s all it took,” she says.
That was in 2011, and she’s been working as volunteer CEO since 2014. One thing that drew her to the program was the success rate.
“As a scientist, I’ve always been very interested in data, and I could tell right away this was a really well run program, very well organized, with a research-based curriculum and daily lesson plans for the tutors.”
The success rate for Reading Power is strong. Last year, according to the organization’s annual report, Reading Power kindergarten students made five times the reading fluency gains compared to their non-tutored classmates. The rate was the same for first graders, who increased their average reading score by 845 percent. Reading Power second grade students made two times the reading fluency gains compared to their non-tutored classmates. The tutored students increased their average fluency score by 172 percent, while the non-tutored students increased their average score by 68 percent.
One thing McFarland says helps students is the connection with their tutors.
“We see the same three kids every day that we tutor all year. They’re shy at first because we’re strangers and adults, then they develop confidence. By the end of the year they are confident readers. It’s so rewarding to see that. It really tugs at your heart,” she says.
For tutors, they’re able to gain new skills under the guidance of an educational professional and meet interesting new people. New tutors go through about nine hours of training, but there’s always an educational professional on hand in the classroom to provide additional training and support. Districts provide classrooms for Reading Power, which gives tutors the unique opportunity to see kids during the school day.
Tutors commit about three and a half hours a week, mornings or afternoons, and can learn more from the tutor tab on the Reading Power website.
“You don’t have to be an educator, you just have to know how to read and love kids,” McFarland says.
For more information, visit readingpowerinc.org.