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Thousands of hours, hundreds of tutors, a lifetime of change.

By Jennifer Jones, communications director, Lowell Bennion Community Service Center

When President Bill Clinton was in the White House, his administration sparked a reading revolution. The idea was to make sure all elementary school children were reading at grade level by the time they reached the third grade. The program was called America Reads.

Jessica Ku, U Bennion student volunteer, reading with elementary school student at Neighborhood House.

Now, almost 20 years later, Utah Reads (as the program came to be called) is still going strong in the Salt Lake valley and helps thousands of children improve their reading skills. Under the wing of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, Utah Reads tutors have spent more than 12,000 hours helping grade-schoolers in just the last six months.

“One of my personal passions is equal opportunities for children,” says Cassi Simmons, Utah Reads program director. “This is not a world where you can succeed and be illiterate. You can never get away from reading. Being able to read is one of many abilities that does not get easier and is always present.”

Simmons says while the program’s name has changed, the mission is only slightly altered. Administrators on many levels recognized that the third-grade target goal was unrealistic for some schools. Children and educators didn’t have the resources or support they needed. They modified the goal to have children reading on grade level by the time they reached the fifth grade. But Simmons says Utah Reads is less about a specific grade level than it is about helping children see success and improvement.

“We don’t expect a fifth grader entering the program reading on a first-grade level to make up the difference in

Alexis Pinelle, U Bennion student volunteer, reading with elementary school student at Neighborhood House.

just one year,” she says. “But if we can make progress with that student, that’s what we want to be seeing.”

She says most students improve their reading by at least one grade level and some by even greater measures. University of Utah students are the catalyst for that change.

This year, an average of 60 students have been hired as tutors. The positions are categorized as work study jobs. To be hired, students must demonstrate financial need when applying for federal student aid. Simmons says once they can prove they qualify, students from any major are eligible to tutor. She interviews candidates, helps them arrange for background checks for school safety purposes and conducts training.

The program works in partnership with the University of Utah Reading Clinic. Using curriculum developed by the clinic’s Kathleen Brown, tutors spend at least four hours a week and up to 20 hours a week working in Title 1 schools.

U Bennion student volunteer, reading with elementary school student at Neighborhood House.

“Students set their own schedules,” Simmons explains. “On average, it’s about 11 hours a week.” The primary focus is students on first-through-third-grade reading level. But new curriculum is expanding Utah Reads to students with third-through-eighth-grade reading skills.

Educators say it’s making a difference. One fifth grade teacher wrote to Simmons, “I just wanted to say thanks for all you have been doing this year! It has been such a huge help to get tutoring for my struggling readers — there is no way I could be doing this alone. This is by far the most academically challenged group of students I have had, and I am thankful for our tutors every day!” A principal added, “I just want to thank you and your team for everything you have done so far at Rose Park. You are all exceptional.”

The problem, Simmons says, is finding enough help. “We can always use more tutors,” she says. “The demand is so high. That’s our bottleneck.”

U Bennion student volunteers, reading with elementary school students at Neighborhood House.

Simmons says tutors work at seven different Salt Lake City School District locations and one area community center. Now that the program has curriculum for older children, there’s even more opportunity for growth. However, the readers aren’t the only ones benefiting from the program. Utah Reads impacts tutors as well. Simmons, who served as a tutor for three years before moving to direct the program, says as an administrator, now she sees both sides of success. “Seeing the joy from the tutors — seeing their passion and excitement in connection with their students — that makes me happy.”