Still Too Hard To Read?

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For one hour, twice a week, 10-year-old Alicia Marerro meets with Fran Wilson, an OhioReads volunteer, inside the school library at Denison Elementary School on Cleveland's West Side. Alicia may be in the fifth grade, but according to Wilson, she's reading at a third grade level.

Wilson is one of 45,000 volunteer tutors in schools striving to improve literacy through OhioReads. Catherine Gingley, a teacher at Denison and the school's OhioReads volunteer coordinator, appreciates Wilson's efforts.

Catherine Gingley: Sometimes it's hard to find people that can volunteer, you know. They have to be able to have the time to do so. So that part's been difficult - just finding enough people. We have like 750 children in the school and a lot of the children would like the individual help.

Recruiting more volunteer tutors isn't the only challenge facing OhioReads these days. Legislators and researchers are asking hard questions about the wisdom of spending tax dollars to promote volunteerism and the effectiveness of the programs themselves at promoting reading proficiency.

A recent study by Indiana University found that students in schools that get grants from OhioReads aren't doing any better on the fourth grade proficiency reading test than those that don't get the money.

Democratic Senator Teresa Fedor is a former reading teacher and one of the 11 members of the OhioReads Council, which awards competitive grants directly to schools. She's concerned about the level of spending.

Teresa Fedor: We have enough research-based information to know where we need to put our dollars and how we need to put them. And the pet projects and the feel-good projects just need to go to the wayside. We need some real professional decisions made here now, not political.

The OhioReads website touts itself as "Governor Bob Taft's major education initiative to improve the reading skills of Ohio's K through 4th grade students." But spokesman Orest Holubeck from Governor Taft's office says that's not the only goal of OhioReads.

Orest Holubeck: It's opening the schoolhouse doors to parents and community leaders and just people who haven't been involved before and they're helping kids learn how to read. And you can't put a price on that.

Kelly Davids, who heads OhioReads for Governor Taft, agrees that the funding program offers more than meets the eye.

Kelly Davids: What I observe firsthand can't be measured quantitively, but qualitatively. When I see the confidence that's building in the children as they continue to learn how to read, sounding out the words... understanding, believing in themselves that they can do this.

But what make OhioReads a tough sell is that its impact on children is hard to measure. This is a point emphasized by supporters, critics and researchers, including those at Indiana University.

Kent State University Professor Nancy Padak, who also researched OhioReads schools, acknowledges the difficulties of studying the program.

Nancy Padak: I think it would be very complicated to do a full analysis and it would be very costly because you'd have to do more than just tick off a proficiency test score for schools. You'd have to actually go in and talk to folks and watch them tutoring in progress and get better achievement information.

The Kent State study findings showed that the one characteristic the best performing OhioReads schools had over the worst OhioReads schools was extensive tutor training. Despite this finding, Davids says state officials have no plans to implement statewide tutor training requirements.

Neither the Indiana study results nor the Kent State study findings satisfy Matthew Hisrich. Hisrich is a policy analyst at the Buckeye Institute, a think-tank that analyzes state government initiatives.

Matthew Hisrich: I think that for public policy we have to have some sort of bar where we can measure things by and if it is just some sort of vague idea that - well, we think kids are doing better - that's not going to meet a standard of taxpayer dollars and whether or not they are being appropriately used.

Governor Taft's office says funding for OhioReads has been cut in half since its 1999 inception. State budget pressure makes support for OhioReads uncertain. The Governor is awaiting recommendations about program changes from state education officials.

A policy change offering more program grants is what Gingley at Denison Elementary School craves. It would be her first. Fewer than 1,200 schools across the state receive big program grants. Still, Gingley appreciates her $2,000 annual stipend for her work in coordinating volunteers.

Catherine Gingley: To be honest, I'd be doing this if they were giving me the stipend or not. I would still coordinate the tutoring in our building. So, yeah it helps in a way because, you know, they do pay me and I do come into school an hour and half early every day so that I'll be here to coordinate it. But would we still have tutoring if OhioReads didn't do it that? Yes, we would because we do what we need to do here at Denison for our students.

Meanwhile, back at Denison's school library, Alicia continues reading, slowly, turning the pages of yet another book. She's trying to make the grade when it comes to reading proficiently. In Cleveland, Tasha Cook, 90.3.

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