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Helping hands for eager readers

Hard to beat this student-to-teacher ratio.

At Sequim's two elementary schools, some the students who need help the most get it not from their classroom teachers but in one-on-one sessions from volunteer tutors, some of whom haven't been in a classroom in decades.

Betsy Smith is the reading specialist at Helen Haller Elementary. She says her volunteer tutors are invaluable resources not just for students and teachers, but for principals and parents.

But many of these tutors, Smith says, aren't returning this year nor are they being succeeded by new tutors, particularly at the later grades (3-5).

"They really have a huge impact on our students," Smith says. "We have more tutors for grades one and two, which is fine because that's where the need is greatest. They're like little sponges. That's ... where the growth happens."

Still, she says, students in grades three, four and five could use more help.

"Tutoring at those grades is a little bit harder; they're developing a self-image and there's ... growth issues," Smith says.

Candy Olmer, volunteer coordinator at Greywolf Elementary in Carlsborg, estimates the school has 40-50 volunteers at the school each week.

"Many are parents or grandparents of Greywolf students," Olmer says.

As at Haller, the majority of Greywolf tutors assist students with reading skills.

"It seems like most of the time the school has sought out people to help with reading - volunteers seem to like to help kids read better," Olmer says.

At Haller, volunteers get a handbook describing the goal of the tutor program, which is twofold: help students improve their reading skills and help them improve their self-image.

Once or twice a week, tutors spend about one hour working with two or three students struggling with reading skills.

At Haller, a daily tutoring session for a young student reads a little like this: Start with a new book and discuss the title, cover pages, author and other facets of the book cover and details before starting in. Then, both tutor and student make predictions about the book. For a while the tutor and student take turns reading, then the student reads alone, all the while getting help from the tutor on things that help the child understand the story.

Some students, Smith says, have problems with reading fluency, or reading how one talks. Others can read fluently but don't understand what they are reading.

"That's from lack of reading, not reading enough," Smith says.

Tutors record their session, Smith says, and report it back to the teacher and teacher's aides for progress checks. Tutors don't work with special needs students, she says. They can move to a higher or lower grade if the tutoring situation doesn't work out and are not obligated to volunteer the whole year.

"The teachers will treasure, however, much time you give them," Smith says.

And though reading is a focus at Sequim's two elementary schools, Olmer says young students can get a boost from tutors in math, too. As a teacher's aide, she helps student in kindergarten through second grade.

"At this level, it's pretty basic - kids still need to learn their numbers, how to count by ones, twos, fives, 10s, how to tell time, learning addition, subtraction, etc.," Olmer says. "I know that teachers particularly in first and second grade would like some extra help in their classes during math time."

At Greywolf, teachers generally assign specific activities such as reading or practicing math facts one-on-one or working with small groups of students with reading or math activities, Olmer says.

"The kids look forward to the volunteers, too." Olmer says. "They are 'special friends,' kind of like surrogate grandparents."

With either focus - math or reading - Sequim's schools could use the help, Smith says.

"This is a great program," she says. "We could use more tutors. I can see the difference. (Students) do make more progress. It's good for their self-

esteem. They like the one-on-one attention."

Haller hosts the last of three tutoring sessions Jan. 13 (call Smith at 582-3200 for details), but the reading specialist says volunteers can sign up and learn how to volunteer at any time leading up to the end of the school year. Those interested must fill out a volunteer form and clear a standard district background check, one that's requested each year for the students' security.

Volunteer disclosure forms are available online at www.sequimschools.wednet.edu or at the Sequim School District office, 503 N. Sequim Ave.

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