CAMP VERDE - In the first two months of the school year, Calvin Pitroff's reading ability has grown by 11 months. And he'll gladly show you his prowess with a book.
"He was below average and now he's above average," says Title 1 Reading Specialist Karen Castillo. "It's more than just the reading. This little boy's attitude has totally changed."
Calvin is one of 18 first and second graders participating in a unique new tutoring program at Camp Verde Elementary School. His success mirrors the not-as-dramatic but still consistent growth in reading skills across the student selection.
Much of the credit for the change is given to six teenagers.
The students from South Verde High School volunteered to be part of a program instigated by SVHS Principal Steve King. He came to Castillo in August with the idea of a teacher prep course. The initial step was the tutoring project.
That involved carefully selecting the six high schoolers - Kylia Lizotte, Annie Murphey, Nicole McGreevy, Zack Mesa, Matt Moore and Devin Romero - and also selecting the elementary students who needed a little extra help and coordinating with the classroom teachers.
"I wanted to see how it felt to teach a kid something and for him to learn it," says Matt, who is a senior. "It turned out to be what I thought it would be."
The tutors read with three children each afternoon, 30 minutes individually. Young Calvin reads with Zack, who is a sophomore. "It felt really good to have actually helped someone," Zack says.
The first and second graders involved do not qualify for Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, aimed at disadvantaged students or students with learning difficulties. The students in this tutoring program just needed focused attention on their reading.
Castillo says she expected improvement but not to the extent that has already appeared under monitoring.
"It proves that it really makes a difference if parents would spend that 30 minutes each day reading with their kids," she says.
Castillo says the second graders increased their reading fluency rate an average of more than 24 words a minute and gained an average of five months of growth. First graders improved an average of 15 words a minute.
Without the tutoring from the South Verde students, Castillo says that would not have been possible. With federal and state standards to meet and the new Arizona mandate to have all children reading at grade level by third grade, the pressure is on elementary schools.
When students do fall behind at that young age, South Verde teacher Marie Zawel says, it becomes even more difficult for them to meet standards, and later middle schools and high school inherit a difficult situation. This kind of tutoring can change all of that.
The high schoolers in the tutoring program are not necessarily heading for teaching careers, but they have been impacted by the program, too, in building relationships with the young children.
"There has been a real bond with the kids, which you don't always expect as teenagers," Zawel says. "We'll hear them talking about 'my kids.'"
The SVHS students were given a week of training that involved phonics skills, handwriting and reading practice as well as how to monitor student progress. They chart the student progress each week. They also earn school credit.
Even if they do not become teachers, Castillo says, they have learned what it takes to be a parent and deal with children. They also learn to be consistent about showing up and following through on what the children expect of them, a good preparation for the business world.
"It's a win-win situation for everybody," Zawel says.
Castillo said the program could not have gotten off the ground without the support of the elementary teachers, who had to work with some difficult coordination.
Now the hope is to grow the program into a full teacher prep course.
Meanwhile, seeing such results in students who mostly do not have strong reading opportunities outside of school, Castillo would love to have community members volunteer to come and read with students. It makes a difference, she says.
Title 1 in general is always in need of books to give to children so they can do more reading away from school. Anyone who would like to be involved can call the elementary school at (928) 567-8060.