by Dennis Dalman
One day recently, a little shy kindergarten boy peeked his head into Julie Hintgen’s classroom, looked at her with a bashful grin and burst out with, “Guess what I just did?”
“What did you just do?” she asked, delighted.
“I got all my letter sounds right!” he replied, bursting with pride. For his other teacher, the boy had sounded out, correctly, all 26 letters of the alphabet.
“Congratulations!” Hintgen told him. “I’m so glad to hear that!”
The boy is one of the students Hintgen tutors in reading in the Sartell-St. Stephen School District. She is a part-time volunteer with what’s known as the Minnesota Reading Corps. The program is part of AmeriCorps, founded in 1993 as a kind of domestic version of the Peace Corps.
Hintgen is one of 1,600 Reading Corps tutors at Minnesota’s 800 schools and Head Start sites.
At Sartell grade schools, Hintgen works one-to-one with anywhere from eight to 10 students, helping each one to learn the building blocks of reading in 20-minute daily sessions. Her supervisor is Michele Rogers, who is the reading intervention coordinator for the Sartell-St. Stephen School District. Their goal is to help children ages K-3rd grade achieve reading skills commensurate with their grade levels.
The Reading Corps program is so successful that already, after just six weeks this school year, five children tutored by Hintgen no longer need help, making more time for five others.
With her students, Hintgen works on improving reading fluency, speed, accuracy and expression.
“I love watching the kids improve their skills every single day,” she said. “It just kind of clicks in them, and I love to see them get so excited when they realize it’s working, too. And it’s so important because reading is essential for everything in life.”
Hintgen works as a tutor about four or five hours each day. She will have volunteered 920 hours this school year, which is her first year as a Reading Corps tutor.
Last year, at the end of the school year, Hintgen received a flyer in the mail about volunteer opportunities with the Minnesota Reading Corps. Right away, she thought, “Wow! This is something I think I would like to do.”
After taking a training course in August, she found herself in a classroom in September, excited to try out what she had learned. And she’s enjoyed the job ever since.
Born in Richmond, Hintgen graduated from Eden Valley High School, then earned a master’s degree in business from St. Cloud State University. While in college, she joined the Minnesota National Guard Reserve Officer Training Program, where she met her future husband, David, who served as a peacekeeper in war-torn Bosnia in 2003. Still a Guard member, David also works as the associate director of the business office at the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud.
The couple has two children: Luke, 9; and Leo, 4, who are both students in the Sartell-St. Stephen School District. What Hintgen has learned as a Reading Corps tutor she also uses to help her sons boost their reading skills.
Hintgen, like other Reading Corps tutors, highly recommends the program for other people who are considering volunteering. Anyone can become a tutor. Free training is provided.
To find out more about the Reading Corps program or how to volunteer, go to its website at minnesotareadingcorps.org.
Like Hintgen, Anne DeMotts of Sartell also likes to encourage volunteers to participate in the program. DeMotts was a Reading Corps tutor for several years. She is now recruitment and outreach coordinator for the program in central Minnesota.
DeMotts has seen first-hand the unqualified successes of Reading Corps, and independent research them to be solid successes, right across the spectrum. A study by a research group at the University of Chicago revealed Reading Corps achieved the following results in the 2012-13 school year:
- Students with Reading Corps tutors achieved a significantly higher level of literacy than students without such tutors. Students not only learn to read quicker, but they tend to stay on track with other subjects, too.
- After a single semester of tutoring, the average kindergarten student with a Reading Corps tutor performed twice as well as non-tutored students.
- The average first-grader performed 11 percent better than non-tutored ones and 26 percent better than the expected level for on-track students, and that all happened after just one semester of tutoring.
- The impressive boosts in learning occurred across the board, regardless of gender, race, age, economic family background or previous education. It’s worked very well with students who are learning English as a second language. The gains were noted in every school where the Reading Corps tutors volunteered.
The success has begun to spread. Other states that have started the program are California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts and North Dakota.
Reading Corps is vital, DeMotts said, because about one third of students are not reading at their expected grade levels, and for math the statistics are even worse.
With just 20 minutes of tutoring five days a week, the results can be readily apparent.
“There are 10 different ways used in tutoring,” she said. “One way is to read to the children the way a TV newscaster would read and then repeat it eight times, with the students reading along with you. There are so many ways to make the learning fun.”
Tutors come from such a wide variety of backgrounds: high-school graduates, college students and graduates, part-time or full-time students, retired people and empty-nesters. DeMotts herself, who has a degree in business administration and chemistry, has worked as a librarian at the St. Cloud Library. Her husband, John, a retired clinical psychologist, is also a Reading Corps tutor, now in his fourth year at Sartell’s Pine Meadow Elementary School.
Now in its 12th year, the Reading Corps reading component began in 2003, with the math component following in 2008.
Another “plus” for Reading Corps volunteers, besides the joy of seeing children learn and excel, is in other kinds of benefits. There is a stipend/allowance given to volunteers and an educational award that can be used for current educational expenses or saved for up to seven years to be used for future educational costs. That award can also be passed on for use by a volunteer’s children. Another plus is students who owe post-secondary school loans can have those loans deferred during the time they are Reading Corps volunteers.
“Reading Corps is just phenomenal,” DeMotts said. “It really works. And what’s so great about the program is anybody can become a tutor. Anybody can do it.”
Minnesota Reading Corps tutor Julie Hintgen (left) consults with Michele Rogers about reading data. Rogers is the reading-intervention coordinator for Sartell schools.