Tutors, school officials work to keep up reading help amid pandemic

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the 20 minutes she spends daily tutoring pupils at the Charles Wright Academy of Arts and Sciences as part of the Michigan Education Corps program, Laurie Lane stresses constant encouragement as she works with them on their reading skills.

Teachers say she is having a big impact in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Laurie Lane delivers a message to her students.

But when schools closed last month because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lane knew she could not leave her students. Passionate for her work, she sought an alternative to instructing face-to-face.

Lane took to social media in her Cat in the Hat outfit from Dr. Seuss Day, holding a sign.

“Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read,” it said, emblazoned with big red hearts. “I Miss You.”

Holding it, Lane wore an expression of earnest intent, her left arm extended palm out, as if testifying to a higher power.

She added a postscript, “Read a little Every Day because Readers make Leaders.”

No pandemic is going to send the Americorps members running for the hills. None of the 144 people working in the Hope Network’s Michigan Education Corps programs under the flag of Americorps left service, as the coronavirus spread and deepened, administrators said.

Like Lane, who now busies herself at home preparing learning packets to send off and working with city school officials on creating a virtual classroom, the members have sought other ways to serve.

They are distributing food, collecting donations, providing child care for volunteers, participating in blood donations and drives, making masks and creating the learning packets that will be available in print and, eventually, electronically.

Across the spectrum of education, there are concerns about students falling behind.

Amid the pandemic, which is affecting the poor and many people of color to a comparatively greater extent than others, not allowing marginal students of limited means to fall behind is a great hope, for Lane and others.

“I’ve always had a real passion for children, and I’m just so passionate about reading, because I know without it people don’t stand a chance,” she said.

“So if these kids want to have any kind of a career that can provide a decent living for their families, they’re going to have to have a job, they’re going to have to read.”

Americorps calls employees like Lane “academic interventionists. In Metro Detroit, they are providing daily, research-based, targeted literacy intervention.

Teachers say it is having an impact that shows in the test scores.

And they express gratitude for their fortitude in the pandemic, and for the attempts by the tutors to stay involved in an extreme situation.

“It’s just sad that this happened, because ... just from the first semester to our second semester, I saw so much growth,” said Brenda Jones, who has taught for 30 years in the Detroit schools, and currently teaches in the third grade at Wright.

“It’s for those kids we have identified as right in the middle, who need that extra little push, and that’s what the education corps provide, that extra little service for those children.”

The need is great. The disruption is capable of making the need worse.

“We are deeply invested and passionate to make sure the children of Detroit have equitable opportunity,” said Carmen Kennedy-Rogers, senior program officer of education for the Skillman Foundation, which supports the Michigan Education Corps financially.

“And, equity is not the same as equality. Equity is about every kid receiving what they need in order to be successful.

“A partner such as Hope Network MEC is strong and consistent,” Kennedy-Rogers said. “They have a focus on fidelity and being able to sit down with a student who is with an adult who is skilled and who is knowledgeable to walk them through and carry them through.”

In Ecorse, Superintendent Josha Talison said the role of the literacy interventionist is critical to the newfound success of some students.

“This is our second year in the program, and we’re seeing drastic gains in our kindergarten to second grade students in reading comprehension and reading skills,” Talison said.

“They do a lot of small group interaction. They have a 1-to-3, 1-to-5 ratio, and they go over a set period and track the reading growth.

“We’ve been able to move a lot of kids in there who are not at grade level reading and brought them to grade level.”

Like Lane, Talison is hurrying to try to provide as much educational opportunity as possible in a pandemic.

Internet infrastructure is key and the Michigan Education Corps reading program is serving some of the least connected schools in the state, along with those in rural communities.

“If they pass out Chromebook laptops, it’s a waste of time if they don’t have internet access at home,” Talison said.

He said he is considering providing portable internet access to a school parking lot and allowing students to come in cars, park at a safe distance, and study from there, among other possibilities for keeping education, and the reading program, going.

“In this day in time, we need to make sure our students have basic internet services in their homes, or to have some community points of access,” Talison said.

Kennedy-Rogers said the emergency is exposing some longstanding inequalities in the education system, including how children can't learn at home if they do not have the resources.

“This whole COVID pandemic crisis that we are in is blowing up, is accentuating the fact that we have some serious spending inequities across schools, across cities, across the county, and it’s a digital divide,” she said.

“Do they have the right tools and resources inside the home so the students can continue to learn?”

Lane said it is all enough to make her want to dig in her heels.

“Michigan Education Corps is trying to pull something together to tutor students online,” she said.

“We are looking for students who need reading tutoring. Our students were really making progress. And it's truly sad that the program ended so abruptly. So we're here, ready and just need the technology and students to keep this thing going.”