Upon her return to the United States after a five-year stint in the Netherlands, speech-language pathologist Sherry Comerchero faced two realities: the striking statistics about illiteracy and her desire to have an impact on her new community, just outside of Boston.
The result of Comerchero's actions to bring these two realities together is the Merrimack Valley Jewish Coalition for Literacy (MVJCL), a school-based volunteer literacy coalition that sends teams of tutors into 17 schools and after-school programs in five communities.
The group is affiliated with the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy (NJCL), a Boston-based coalition of 17 national Jewish agencies and organizations and almost 50 local community affiliates committed to helping all children in the United States learn to read by the end of third grade.
Comerchero emphasizes the nonsectarian nature of the local and national group, noting that the group's volunteers—and the children they mentor—represent many religions, races, and ethnicities.
Identifying the Need
Comerchero cited several literacy statistics that steered her actions. "According to the National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 40 million U.S. adults can't read well enough to read a simple story to a child," she said. "More than 35% of American fourth-graders read below the 'basic' level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test, and only 32% are 'proficient' or better." NCES statistics also indicate that one in five high school graduates can't read their own diplomas, she said.
"These shocking statistics are what propelled me into creating a volunteer literacy coalition in my community," said Comerchero, who has worked in the preschool program of Haverhill Public Schools for 10 years and maintained a private practice before living overseas. "I wanted to help address the critical need of helping young students who were struggling with learning to read." She contacted the NCJL, which provided her with a "how-to" session on starting a local group.
Volunteers commit one hour each week during the school year to work one-on-one with students reading just below grade level. They read books together and work on specific literacy skills such as acquiring new vocabulary, learning sight words, and rhyming.
Comerchero recruited volunteers through newspaper announcements and presentations to a variety of community groups, and then designed and led training programs to teach volunteers about the reading process and how to help students become better at it.
"We learned quickly what to do and what not to do," Comerchero recalled. "At our first training session, we used an outside leader, and we lost about a third of our volunteers! The trainer presented too much material and made it seem too difficult."
Now Comerchero leads the training. "I try to empower the volunteers," she explained. "They know intuitively what to do—I just give them more information. I try to convey that this experience is not a job, but rather a mentoring opportunity. The volunteer needs to support, engage, and encourage the student, because the volunteer may be one of the few consistent adults in the child's life."
The most important role of the volunteer is to build trust, Comerchero said. "Learning to read involves taking risks. When a student trusts the adult, the adult can encourage the child to take risks, give the child the tools and strategies the child needs, help the student gain skill and confidence in reading, and help the child see the value in reading."
The program began six years ago with 20 volunteers in grades K-3 in a single school in Haverhill, when Comerchero approached her own superintendent about bringing the program into the district. He agreed, and news of the program's success spread to other schools and districts. Today, more than 130 volunteers help students in preschool through seventh grade in public schools in five districts, private schools, and after-school programs.
"I wasn't looking to grow the program," Comerchero said, "but I got a call from another school, and then another, and it just mushroomed."
MVJCL receives no funding from the national coalition, and must support its own efforts. "In the last few years, we have been extremely fortunate to have community and private foundation funding that has provided our volunteers with specialized literacy materials as well as training in how to effectively use these materials," Comerchero said.
Keys to Success
The coalition thrives "because of the dedicated volunteers who return year after year to help new children," Comerchero said. "We also have highly appreciative and involved teachers, principals, and learning and reading specialists who recognize the value of having trained volunteers work with their students."
Program results are measured by volunteer and teacher survey forms distributed at the end of every school year. The anecdotal reports indicate that administrators, principals, teachers, parents, and students are all enthusiastic about the literacy project.
Comerchero, who was honored by the Massachusetts Literacy Foundation as a Literacy Champion in 2004, is looking to broaden the impact of the program by taking it in a new direction—training parents to help their own children, including those with special needs, to improve their reading. "We have the capability to do this," Comerchero said, "and the impact would be more far-reaching. If you give parents the tools, they can make much greater gains in what we're trying to achieve."
Comerchero works four days a week for the Haverhill school district and spends one day each week on coalition activities. "This has been such an exciting and enriching experience," Comerchero said. "I have reaped amazing benefits from coordinating this endeavor."
"This experience has inspired me to assume a more meaningful role for myself as a school SLP," she said. "I have learned so much about the reading process from training volunteers and from my close interactions with the reading specialists involved in our program. I also have greater insight into understanding the direct connection between oral and written language difficulties and the various interventions used to address specific literacy needs. It has made a huge impact in my diagnostic skills as well, because understanding the language needs and underlying phonological system gives me the information I need to create more effective and individualized interventions that address the specific language and literacy needs of students who are struggling to learn."
For more information about starting a volunteer literacy coalition, contact Sherry Comerchero at firstname.lastname@example.org.