AmeriCorps funding cuts may leave Duluth education without tutors and mentors

AmeriCorps tutor Niki Rowland tutors Jane, a second grader whose low reading scores make her eligible for the Reading Corps program. Photo Credit: Scott Schmidley If students struggle with reading, they get pulled from their classrooms at Homecroft Elementary School in Duluth, Minn. They go to Room 230 during snack or story time to meet with the reading tutor, Niki Rowland.

Rowland’s position, which is funded by AmeriCorps, may be eliminated as a result of the new budget bill known as H.R.1 or the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011. The bill cuts over $138 million in requested AmeriCorps funding, putting an end to thousands of community service positions nationwide.

“The amount of services will be drastically reduced,” said Blair Gagne, program director at True North AmeriCorps. “We won't have the resources to do the quality that we will need to be successful. And we won't have the person power to support that.”

Gagne estimates that in Duluth alone, 250 kids will not have access to the programs they need. The tutoring program, another branch of True North, works with nearly 900 students within the Duluth school system.

True North AmeriCorps, a program that serves ten counties in northeastern Minnesota, could lose many of its planned 100 members, according to Gagne.

“Many of the tutoring and mentoring programs would be gone. There would be fewer after-school programs, too,” said Minnesota AmeriCorps recruiter Dylan Savall. “Most schools just don’t have funding for these positions.”

Progress evaluations from two students at Homecroft elementary. The vertical axis shows words per minute. Photo Credit: Scott Schmidley

Niki Rowland works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and receives under $200 per week for her work at Homecroft Elementary. This stipend puts her right at the poverty line.

She received her education degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is licensed to teach. However, she chose to take lower wages and embrace public service with a position that acts as resource to the community. And she’s not alone.

Gagne characterizes AmeriCorps members as “people that are committed and are not out to make money. They are looking to give back. The cost to support them is minimal for the impact that they are making.”

Rowland’s program, which helps children reach state minimum reading requirements before grade three, is one-on-one. She tutors 24 students everyday. Without her, these students wouldn’t receive individual attention.

Reading Corps results are measured by how many words the students can read in one minute. Rowland’s second-graders should be reading at 90 words per minute. When they pass this benchmark, they exit Rowland’s program.

This school year, Rowland successfully exited 26 students from the program by getting them at or above the state-prescribed standards.

“The goal of my program is to get students reading at grade level by the end of grade three. Up until grade three, students are learning to read. After that, the students are reading to learn,” Rowland said.

Her program prepares students for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA)

tests that are given to students in grades three to five throughout the state. Students are tested in reading, math and science. But without strong foundational reading skills, the students will score poorly in reading, science and most of the math sections.

Seventy-five percent of the kids that successfully exit the Reading Corps program pass the MCA, according to statistics from the MN Reading Corps.

Education is just one of the program areas that will be cut by the new bill. And Rowland’s students are just a few that will suffer.

“With such big classes, I might be one of the only adults that these kids get to talk to all day,” Rowland said.

Are the AmeriCorps cuts going to affect you? How do you feel about the cuts? We’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

Local volunteers give wild animals a second chance

Duluth native makes music out of junk