by Sandra LeDuc
“Reading is important because it expands your mind, your life. It extends your world,” said Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat. Reading is also an essential skill that significantly impacts academic and career success in our country. But Children and Communities of Color, including many immigrants, often do not have equitable access to resources to learn and practice reading, making literacy a social justice issue.
Through their cross-age, one-on-one tutoring program, Seattle nonprofit Team Read is working to provide more equitable access to reading. The free program pairs trained teen reading coaches with second- and third-grade students to “propel young students to become inspired, joyful readers and teens to become impactful leaders.” The organization partnered with Seattle and Highline Public Schools to serve 22 elementary schools last school year and expanded its programming to include elementary schools in Renton and Tukwila this school year.
Closing Learning Gaps With a Unique, Cross-Age Model
If students aren’t reading proficiently by fourth grade, research shows they are far more likely to drop out of high school and be limited in their academic and professional careers. But not all learners have access to the support they need to learn how to read, including one-on-one attention, after-school programs, and relevant reading content.
Team Read began in 1997 to improve Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) students’ reading outcomes by addressing some of these access and equity issues. The program connects young students reading below their grade level with teen reading coaches from nearby middle and high schools with similar backgrounds and experiences, many of whom are Students of Color. Team Read recruits, trains, and pays the teen coaches, providing a meaningful first job for many young people. After operating for nearly 25 years, the program has hundreds of alumni coaches who have helped thousands of students learn to read.
Team Read employs between 300 and 450 teens each year, including summer, partnering with The Seattle Public Library, SPS, the City’s Department of Education and Early Learning, and Highline Public Schools to provide reading support and tutoring for hundreds of young students.
Team Read’s Board President Yolanda Eng says the cross-age, dual-impact model has been the key to the program’s success.
“We’re not only helping young students become confident readers, but we’re also training the next generation of leaders,” Eng said. She knows the model well because she was a Team Read tutor while a high school student at Garfield High School in Seattle.
“Because we employ teen coaches that live in the same neighborhoods and have the same backgrounds as the young students they tutor, the relationships they develop are powerful and successful,” Eng said. “It really underscores the importance of elementary school students having younger role models.”
Team Read works with schools and students who disproportionately come from underrepresented groups, including Black, Latino, Multiracial, Native American or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities; low-income backgrounds; and households where English is not the home language.
Teachers in Team Read partner schools refer second-, third-, and — where available — fourth-grade students to the program. The students work one-on-one with their reading coach in after-school sessions twice a week to improve their reading comprehension and skills. The focused attention helps young students reach new heights: Team Read says 70% of the young readers in the program advance more than one reading grade level in a year.
Inspiring Teen Leaders and Future Educators of Color
The teen coaches who tutor young readers are core to Team Read’s program, and their development receives the same care and attention as the student readers. Kenji Kurose, a former Team Read coach and site coordinator, said his experience reinforced his desire to become an educator.
“The impact I made on students’ lives in Team Read gave me such incredible rewards,” he said. “I thought about how having a teacher who represents, cares for, and believes in students can be so effective in young peoples’ lives.”
Kurose is a graduate student in education and has a degree in mathematics from California Polytechnic State University. He wants to use his education to help train and develop other teachers.
“Seeing myself as an educator was something I believed I could be very successful in, so I continued to chase that success,” Kurose said.
Team Read supports Students of Color in ways that classroom teachers may not be able to, including those from homes where English is not the primary language, Kurose said.
“The diverse Team Read tutors were more effective in helping meet local second and third graders’ needs because the students were able to see themselves in the faces of the high school students,” he said. “I also noticed how many non-English learners felt very supported when they connected with tutors who spoke the same language they did at home.”
Kurose comes from a family with a strong legacy in education. Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle honors his grandmother, an educator and activist who helped bring Head Start programs to Seattle. His father is a math instructor at North Seattle Community College and Franklin High School. His mother, Kathleen Vasquez, is the literacy and social studies program manager for SPS. In this role, she collaborates closely with Team Read and has seen the program’s positive impact.
“With Team Read, kids can practice reading with teenagers, and they’re not embarrassed. They feel rewarded. There’s not the same pressure or expectations they may have with a teacher in their classroom,” she said.
Vasquez notes that children learn words and reading differently. Some need just 20 exposures to a word before they understand it, while others may need 2,000 exposures to reach the same understanding.
“Some kids need more time, and that isn’t built into the school day. With Team Read, those kids are getting an additional two hours of reading time per week — that’s two hours practicing the skills we know help readers learn, like reading aloud.”
As a former high school teacher in Oakland and San Francisco, Vasquez said she saw how kids get left behind early in reading, negatively affecting their future academic success.
“I had kids in my high school classroom who were reading at a fourth-grade level, and they struggled so much … I just so wish they’d had access to a program like Team Read,” Vasquez said.
Many factors affect how ready kids are to learn how to read, Vasquez said. For example, if a child is in a multilingual household, their parents or guardians may not know how to read English, so they don’t read to their children. In addition, kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds may not have access to any books in their households. And many books schools use to teach reading don’t reflect the reality of life for a Child of Color.
“Kids look at those books and think, ‘Those books don’t look like me at all, so why should I care about this story?’” she says. “That’s a real barrier to learning.”
In Team Read, the teen tutors and young students choose from various books and learning resources, including those featuring Children and People of Color.
“We know relevant content is at the center of reading excellence for groups like young Black males, which is so important,” Vasquez said. According to state reading assessments, only 35% of young Black males are reading proficiently by third grade, compared to 65–70% of all students.
Extending Team Read’s Impact
Team Read’s work with the SPS has been so successful that other school districts — especially those in South King County with large, diverse populations — asked to bring the program to some of their schools for the 2021–22 school year. As a result, Team Read has added partner schools in the Renton and Tukwila school districts. In addition, the program has added a third school in the Highline School District, where they’ve been working since 2016.
Ted Howard, chief academic officer of the Tukwila School District, worked with Team Read to bring the program there. Howard was principal of Garfield High School for 16 years and saw how the teen tutors flourished in Team Read. He watched teens who had behavioral issues become engaged, caring reading coaches, and role models to the young students they tutored.
“The teens are choosing to do this … they go back to the school where they were a student and utilize skills they haven’t had the chance to use before … I’ve seen kids with extreme behavior problems step up and take responsibility in a whole new way,” he said.
Howard said Team Read can reach many young learners in Tukwila, especially those from non-English speaking homes.
“There are 76 languages spoken in Tukwila … yet in schools, we focus learning on just one language, English. Some teachers say, ‘If only these kids knew English, we could teach them.’ And I ask, is that a student-centered classroom? No,’” Howard said.
“The way we teach reading in our country, it’s steeped in racism and inequitable practices … Literacy is an equity issue,” he says.
According to Howard, Team Read can help bridge the educational gaps for young learners from underrepresented groups and instill a sense of pride in everyone being successful.
“What makes Team Read work is that it has young people teaching other young people. It’s a collaborative community of learning, and it provides a platform for young people,” Howard said. “When you provide that platform, you build a stronger community.”
Eng agrees. “Team Read coaches have such a positive impact on students, and we’re hoping to invest even more in them,” she said. “We want to be a pipeline for teachers of color … having more diverse educators helps ensure all students feel seen and heard in the classroom, and that’s incredibly powerful.”
Sandra LeDuc is a writer and editor living in South Seattle.
📸 Featured Image: A student at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Seattle reads aloud to her Team Read coach in 2019. Photo by Lisa Bontje.
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