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Building reading fluency goal of United Way program

Mile High United Way Reading Corps member Emma Blatherwick reads with Izabella Menifee, a third grader at Murphy Creek K-8 in Aurora.
Mile High United Way Reading Corps member Emma Blatherwick reads with Izabella Menifee, a third grader at Murphy Creek K-8 in Aurora.
Nicholas Garcia

AURORA — On most school days, Izabella Menifee, a third grader at Murphy Creek K-8 school in Aurora, leaves her class for 20 minutes to read one-on-one with her tutor Emma Blatherwick.

During their time together, Izabella will read a short passage as fast as she can while Blatherwick tracks which words she misses or mispronounces. They’ll also take turns reading every other word. The goal of these exercises and others is to get Izabella reading about 135 words per minute.

Blatherwick is one of two Colorado Reading Corp members at Murphy Creek. The reading program’s aim is to improve the reading fluency of students who are below grade level. The idea is if students can spend less time stumbling over words, they can spend more time understanding the meaning of what they’re reading.

And it appears to be working. In its first year, 76 percent of third-graders who completed the program and were previously reading below grade level showed improvement and are now scoring at or above grade level, according to internal assessments by Mile High United Way.

“Our teachers work incredibly hard,” said Chris Capron, Murphy Creek’s assistant principal said. “But sometimes students don’t get the fine tuning they need. And if teachers and students don’t have to worry about fluency, they can focus on comprehension in the classroom. These students sound like readers.”

The Colorado Reading Corps is based on a similar program established in Minnesota in 2003. Today, that program is the largest state AmeriCorps program in the country.

Reading tutors, usually recent college graduates, work for a stipend and a $5,645 education award they can apply toward their tuition or school loans. They receive three days of intense literacy training before setting foot in a school. They work closely with a school leader and a coach from United Way.

The reading corps are in 41 schools in Jeffco Public Schools, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, and Aurora Public Schools.

For Capron at Murphy Creek, the reading corps fills a large gap in the types of interventions he’s able to offer for students in kindergarten through third grade, as required by the Colorado READ Act.

The federal money Aurora Public Schools receives to serve low-income students does not follow each student. Instead the district funnels the money to schools that serve mostly poor students. That leaves schools like Murphy Creek, where four in 10 students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, with less money for intervention programs.

“We do really well with what we’re given,” Capron said. “But we have a lot of hardworking families. And their students come in with skills but are a little behind. This program really catches them up.”

For third-grader Izabella that means reading “big chapter books” at home and doing research on animals she likes, especially dolphins.

“She’s gaining the confidence to try new words,” Blatherwick said.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified how many minutes schools spend with reading tutors. Students spend 20 minutes, not 30 minutes. This article has also been updated and clarified to reflect that 76 percent of students who completed the program were reading at grade level according to local assessments, not the state’s reading test. This article has also been updated to reflect how much a Reading Corps member earned as an education award.

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