GRAND RAPIDS — Every employer looks for certain skills and qualifications when hiring new employees, and the foundation for many of those skills is taught in elementary school.
And it all starts with reading.
Reading is at the heart of almost every activity in business, and without a solid background from early on, young people won’t be fully prepared to enter the job market. That is why Steelcase, United Way and Grand Rapids Public Schools have joined forces to create the FACTS (Family And Communities Together for Students) program, which includes the HOSTS (Helping One Student To Succeed) program and after-school programs to enhance literacy in the school system.
Four years ago, Gov. John Engler and the Michigan Board of Education approached Steelcase CEO James Hackett and several other CEOs in the area to volunteer to help kids learn to read. Steelcase accepted the challenge and began the HOSTS program at Madison Park Elementary School.
This year United Way began its own program within the Grand Rapids Public Schools and looked to Steelcase for guidance.
“They had piloted a program four years ago and had a nice system set up. We were able to use that system as a model for what we wanted to accomplish,” said Kathy White, vice president for United Way Services.
Both programs seek out schools that display the most need. Students take a reading test in the fall and then 60 students per school are targeted for inclusion in the program. The program is tailored to first-, second- and third-graders, but also accepts fourth-graders.
After students have been identified, the teacher creates tutor sessions for each student. A folder is created including lessons for each tutor session, based on reading levels and student interests, and a feedback sheet for tutors to keep up to date on each student’s progress.
“What we are asking is that people commit to a half an hour once a week to help these young people,” White said. “Now each of the children get three experiences a week so each child will hopefully have three tutors or three mentors.
“The program is totally greased so it isn’t like a volunteer has to set up lesson plans. The teacher sets up the plans and works with the tutor on any other questions they may have. The beauty of this program is that they brought in information about the child, they have done the testing on the child and it all comes up like a prescription.”
The tutor sessions are usually broken down into three sections, and may include reading out loud, an activity based on reading and a worksheet. Tutor sessions can be conducted anytime between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and volunteers are able to choose a time that fits into their schedule as well as a school of their choice.
“We try to encourage companies to adopt one school in the system and we try to choose one that is close to their place of work,” said Jim Knight, director of global learning and development at Steelcase.
When the program started four years ago Steelcase had 15 volunteers; now the program has grown to encompass 150 volunteers, plus those participating through United Way.
Knight said that during the 1996-97 school year, of all the fourth-graders taking the MEAP test in GRPS, 65 percent scored low and 10 percent scored satisfactory in the reading section. During the 1999-00 school year, he said only 8 percent scored low and 40 percent reached the satisfactory mark in reading.
“We can see the improvement and we can see the progress students are making in all areas of their work,” said Knight. “We measure our progress on three things: MEAP scores, classroom improvement and attendance. All three have drastically improved.”
White said the issue goes beyond more than just test scores, however.
“We know that the research shows that if kids are reading by the third grade they will be successful through the rest of their schooling,” White said. “Really from kindergarten through third grade kids are learning to read; from there on out they are reading to learn. This is a good program for anyone that is concerned about the future workforce and job market.”
And these are the people Knight and White are looking for to become volunteers in the programs. Both say every Grand Rapids Public School needs help as well as some schools in other districts. “If we get a business or an individual that calls and says, ‘I really want to do something in my area,’ we will connect them with the school district in their area,” White said.
However, the current focus is with Madison Park and other GRPS schools, and there are certain steps volunteers must go through before beginning to tutor.
“First we want them to understand what the commitment is, and second, we want them to understand that the bulk of the experience is working with kids from diverse backgrounds,” White added. “The kids that are being tutored are mostly from the inner city and they have had different life experiences and different circumstances, and therefore it is important to understand if a child says something or they react in a certain way, there is an understanding there.”
For these reasons a 90-minute training session is required for each volunteer. After that a background check is done on each volunteer, and upon passing, they are placed at a school.
“If a business has a group of people that want to tutor, we will actually go on-site and provide the training to them right there,” White added.
Currently it is not just staff members of outside companies that are participating in the program but staff within GRPS as well as the CEOs of Steelcase and United Way. “We are really trying to encourage businesses to get 5 percent of their staff to do this,” White said. “It really is workable.”