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Austin Partners in Education at Walnut Creek
Volunteer Glenna Scott works with students on their reading skills in Tammi Powell's second-grade bilingual class at Walnut Creek Elementary School.
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Demand for reading, math mentors rises in Austin ISD
Nonprofit seeks more volunteers to provide aid
A nonprofit created by Austin ISD and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is seeking more volunteers to mentor students in reading and math and increase the students’ confidence in learning.
Austin Partners in Education has existed since 2004 and currently places volunteers in 26 AISD schools that are classified as Title I low-income schools where students move around more often. APIE has programs at several North Austin schools such as Walnut Creek Elementary School and Burnet, Dobie and Webb middle schools. APIE also provides a college-readiness program at Lanier High School and will start that program at Anderson High School in the fall.
APIE Executive Director Cathy Jones said the demand is much greater because 17 additional AISD schools have asked for the APIE programs. The nonprofit begins its big push for volunteers in late August when schools have their schedules set. She said they also need Spanish-speaking volunteers.
“We would love to expand, but we need more volunteers in order to do that,” she said.
APIE recruits volunteers from the community for its classroom coaching and step-up programs. For classroom coaching, volunteers tutor an entire classroom once a week to assist students in reading in second and sixth grade and in math for eighth grade. Students are placed in groups of two or three based on their skill level. In the step-up program, teachers identify students who need extra help for mentoring three to five times per week.
Culture of learning
Principal Dora Molina from Burnet Middle School has seen firsthand how the APIE program not only boosts student learning but also focuses on the school’s emphasis of creating a culture of learning.
“The self-esteem of students definitely increases as they become more empowered with the skills they learn,” she said.
Tammi Powell, a second-grade teacher at Walnut Creek Elementary School, is a former APIE volunteer and now has the reading program in her dual-language classroom. Her students learn concepts in their native Spanish and English. She said the APIE program allows students to learn concepts in a new model.
“They get to see that reading is important not just for [their] teachers here at school, but there are others in the community that really value reading as well,” she said.
The teachers see up close how their students grow in knowledge. Teachers help break students into smaller groups based on their skill level so that every child has the opportunity to move up to the next level. Powell said APIE provides valuable aid because it is difficult for one teacher to provide the individual level of attention to every child that the APIE volunteers can provide.
“There’s a year’s worth of growth that you generally want to accomplish, and I think in this one semester, we’ve already seen a year’s worth of growth,” Powell said of her 2012–13 class in April. “We’re predicting two years of growth in one year. That’s a reason why having programs like APIE—it really does significantly impact our students’ reading levels.”
Molina said the schools don’t focus on whether students pass their State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams but rather measure the success of the programs in other ways, such as gauging whether a student’s confidence increased over the course of the program.
Jones said APIE surveys students before and after the program to assess confidence levels and engagement.
“You can’t forget about the progress made, that value added, and again, their attitude and engagement,” she said. “If [students] felt in the beginning of the year that they couldn’t do math, and at the end of the year they feel confident that they can do math, that’s huge.”
Jones said the programs have other benefits such as increased attendance rates for students who participate in an APIE program.
Volunteer Nicole Kachelmeier is a programmer analyst in the research and development department at National Instruments. A teacher told her about APIE, and Kachelmeier joined the program last August, tutoring eighth-graders in math at Webb Middle School. She said she was drawn to the program because of her experience as a calculus tutor while attending The University of Texas.
Kachelmeier uses games to help students understand the concepts. She said the smaller groups make it easier for the students to ask questions, and she could see how the students became more excited about math as the school year progressed.
“The volunteers want to be there and enjoy being there. The kids pick up on that,” she said.
APIE recruits volunteers from the community, screens them and provides them with training and a manual to use. Jones said APIE often recruits volunteers from college career fairs and at businesses such as IBM.
“It gives students the chance to meet an engineer who might not be someone they normally come in contact with,” she said. “Volunteers come from all walks of life: professionals, retirees, college students. We have a nice mix and a nice group age-wise.”
By using volunteers from the community, Molina said it demonstrates how the community cares about students.
“They’re silent heroes,” she said. “… It’s a great benefit to showcase their work and talents, and we hope to continue to cultivate that.”