Playing catch-up 

Imagine not being able to read this, or any, newspaper. Imagine not experiencing the joy of opening a book and embarking on an adventure. Imagine struggling through school, hiding your inability, and being too embarrassed to ask for help.

And what if you're a child with parents who don't have the skills or the time to read with you?

Now, imagine you meet someone who will work one-on-one with you to help you open that door to a better life.

Those tutors come courtesy of the Children's Literacy Center, which was founded in 1991 to ensure that local kids experience the pleasures and benefits of reading. It's a job to which our state government hasn't devoted a lot of resources. Studies such as the National Report Card, issued in October by the advocacy group Education Law Center, have given Colorado poor grades for its education funding.

"Surprisingly, we're doing much better than probably we should," says Mallory Underwood, 27, the center's director of development. "Other states are throwing a lot more percentage of tax dollars at education than we are."

At last count, 900 CLC volunteers are contributing a total of 67,500 hours per year to teaching the center's Peak Reader curriculum. They meet with children reading below their grade level for one hour a day, two days a week, for 12 weeks. The free program also requires that parents spend 15 minutes per day reading with their child, and each student receives a free book to take home upon graduation. Underwood says that 74 percent of the families in the program are low-income.

The center's "marketing guru," Alex Braha, cites a study finding that it takes 2,000 pieces of literature passing through the home between birth and kindergarten for a child to be considered literate.

"It doesn't matter what they are — they can be novels and magazines, they don't have to be kids' books," says Braha.

The requirements for tutors aren't extensive: They must be older than 14, pass a background check and, of course, have a passion for reading. Beyond that, as Underwood says, the center is looking "for the mentorship, which a lot of these kids really need. To have the attention of an adult all to themselves for that two hours per week, that can work miracles."

Tutors go through an orientation session and three hours of training with the Peak Reader Curriculum, specially developed for the center. Beyond reading strategies, they're trained in spotting signs of dyslexia or poor vision; the center will refer those children to professionals.

If potential tutors can't commit to two hours per week, they can team with other tutors to alternate days or weeks. Site coordinators tap a pool of substitutes when needed, and handle logistics for each location throughout the city; those locations can be found at peakreader.org.

"We don't let them tutor semester after semester after semester until they get burned out," Braha explains. "So we like for them to take a break and be a substitute tutor for a semester. And then come back renewed. It's intense — it's a long time with one student, and it can be a little draining, so we want them to be re-energized."

The CLC used funds from last year's Give! Campaign to start Fort Read, geared toward children in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. This year's proceeds will allow center staff to spend more time in that district, as well as buy more materials and recruit more volunteers for it. Twenty-five percent of Fountain-Fort Carson students in the third through sixth grades, according to the CLC, are reading below their grade level; only 7 percent read above their grade level.

Underwood and Braha cite plenty of reasons why children of military parents often struggle more than their peers. They may be too worried about a deployed parent to concentrate in school; they tend to deal with frequent moves; they have to keep making new friends and trying to fit in.

"These kids lead a stressful enough life, and they need the skill set to say, 'I need an escape for a couple of hours because life is really hard,'" Underwood says. "Just a couple of hours to have a safe haven. They can escape their everyday hardships [via reading]. It's huge."

She sounds as driven as a four-star general when summing up the Child Literacy Center's mission:

"We're saying, 'We have to stop this, we have to change this, and we have to give these kids the skills they need in order to succeed.'"



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