By EMMALEE C. TORISK
Every Tuesday and Thursday, 9-year-old Elizabeth Mullarkey voluntarily spends an extra hour after school, at school.
With the help of her mentor, Amanda Shuluga of Poland, a sophomore psychology and pre-counseling major at Youngstown State University, the fourth-grader uses those two extra hours to improve her reading skills.
Sometimes, there’s enough time to work on math, too — Elizabeth’s favorite.
But perhaps best of all, the one-on-one tutoring comes at no cost to Elizabeth’s family, or to the families of the dozen other children who participate in the after-school program, which is offered by Making Kids Count Inc., a nonprofit organization started in 2010 that works to make every child feel special. This is the second year for the tutoring program at Struthers.
“The students get to know someone on a more personal level” by working one-on-one, Shuluga said. “And I get to learn her needs, and focus on that. I can figure out where she needs help.”
“She’s very fun,” added Elizabeth, referring to her mentor.
On Tuesday, in between bites of goldfish-shaped crackers, and only minutes after her dismissal from school, Elizabeth began the day’s “cold read,” which measured how many words of a short passage she’d never seen before could be read aloud in one minute. The start of each new week also meant the start of a new book, and this week’s selection was about coral reefs.
As Elizabeth worked through the passage — “a coral reef is like a huge underwater city,” she began — Shuluga patiently followed along, marking any mistakes with a blue colored pencil. She later subtracted the number of errors from the number of words read, leaving Elizabeth with the grand total of 68 words in one minute.
Not bad, Shuluga said, showing Elizabeth a bar graph that indicated last week’s cold reading of another passage had netted only 50 words. The fourth-grader proudly colored in a blue bar on the graph, marking her progress.
After a bit of practice, Elizabeth tried again, ending with 97 words for her “warm read” — an improvement over last week’s 76. Again, she colored in a substantially taller yellow bar on the graph. She’d have to wait until Thursday, though, to do her “hot read,” the last — and, hopefully, best — reading of the passage, which would be marked with a red colored pencil.
The idea behind the repeat readings is that students will “do a little bit better every time they practice,” said Colleen Eisenbraun, program manager of Making Kids Count. She added that the amount of words read per minute does increase, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s growth.
During each tutoring session, students also work through the book that correlates with the passages they’ve already read, and complete exercises related to the book both before and after reading. Topics for the books vary — bats, astronauts, Aesop’s fables — but they all correspond with each student’s individual reading level.
Most students enrolled in the after-school tutoring program are just a few levels behind where they’re supposed to be at the start of fourth grade, Eisenbraun said. If they don’t catch up soon, however, they’ll fall behind even further as their classmates move to more advanced levels throughout the school year.
Helping these fourth-graders become more successful in the classroom is, obviously, one of the immediate goals of the program, which runs from October through May, Eisenbraun said. But she added that other, more far-reaching effects are also intended, especially those achieved through the student-mentor relationship. Mentors include college students, current and retired educators, and community members with a love for working with children.
“It helps them make huge strides with confidence, having an adult show them that one-on-one attention,” Eisenbraun said. “Down the road, they can say, ‘There was someone who invested time in me, and saw potential in me.’”
This year is the tutoring program’s first with one-on-one tutoring, and also with just fourth-grade students. Now, second- and third-graders — the latter of which were involved in the after-school tutoring last year — receive extra help during the school day; both programs use curriculum from Project MORE, or Mentoring in Ohio for Reading Excellence.
Maggie Kowach, principal of Struthers Elementary School, called the school’s involvement with Making Kids Count a “fantastic partnership,” and said the after-school tutoring program offers numerous social, emotional and academic benefits for those involved.