WASHINGTON — The idea behind President Clinton's America Reads initiative is simple: Use a "citizen army" of volunteers to make a difference in teaching kids to read.
The White House provided the call to arms in August 1996. In July 1997, the Department of Education waived the requirement that employers of federal work-study students match 25 percent of their salaries. That waiver opened the door for schools to use college students as tutors.
But it did not provide resources to train the troops. "Under federal work-study legislation, we could not mandate training," says Carol Rasco, director of America Reads. "We certainly envisioned that once the legislation [for America Reads] passed, there would be grant money for reading specialists."
Republican lawmakers argue that money for literacy could be better used by beefing up training for regular classroom teachers. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee opens hearings on its version of the America Reads Challenge today. In the meantime, some 980 schools have gone ahead to commit federal work-study students as reading tutors this year. Many had only weeks to prepare students to take up tutoring assignments.
"Often America Reads was handed to the financial-aid people, who didn't really have experience in doing this kind of a project," says Josh Young, who coordinates the America Reads effort in Miami.
Miami could become one of the success stories. Dade County Schools provide close professional supervision of sessions, including an on-site teacher and a reading expert. There, 216 tutors are now helping some 2,000 students.
The key to a successful program is to start small, says Robert Exley, liaison for America Reads at Miami Dade Community College. "Think pilot project first, and look at what's manageable with the resources that you have - even if it means one school and five tutors."