Helping out the next generation

Math and reading tutors sought at many school districts in the state


Yes, 2014 looks different. Schools have changed. Joe Kustritz, of St. Cloud laughed thinking about all the change in the past 50 years and the differences in how math is taught to kids.   “Everything has changed,” he said before pausing, “except the basic concepts-addition, subtraction, multiplication, division- have not.” Kustritz, who grew up in South St. Paul, always wanted to become a teacher, but when he graduated from college, there were few teaching jobs available. “So, I went a different direction,” he said, “and I spent 30 years working for Stearns County.” As retirement came closer, his thoughts returned to how much he liked to work with kids and how he had always wanted to teach. His daughter had been an AmeriCorps tutor, and the opportunity to teach in local schools piqued his interest.

Kustritz applied to the AmeriCorps program last summer, was hired as a Math Corps tutor and has nearly completed the school year at South Junior High in St. Cloud. He tutors sixth, seventh and eighth-graders who need support to gain proficiency in math.

Kustritz admits he was good at math as a kid. He works part time, about 20-25 hours a week, tutoring students, two at a time, using research-based strategies in one-hour sessions. “I enjoy the dickens out of it,” he said. He goes into school each day but only has students every other day. He spends the extra time preparing for classes, looking at lesson plans and deciding on strategies that work best with each student. He also uses his “prep time” for data collection.

His sixth-graders concentrate on basic skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) but they are also learning fractions, decimals, the metric system and how to graph. A goal of the program is for students to be algebra ready by eighth-grade because passing algebra is linked with success in college. “Some of the kids are pretty good at math, but they might fall short of showing proficiency on the MCAs,” Kustritz explained. The MCA (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment) measures how well a student meets the state academic standards.  In addition to helping the students understand grade-level skills and concepts, Kustritz helps them with their ongoing classwork. Every AmeriCorps site has an internal coach available to help tutors with problems they may have, like behavioral issues or questions about the curriculum.

Kustritz has attended parent-teacher nights, and most of the parent feedback he’s received has been positive. It has surprised him to find out that he is older than some of his student’s grandparents. “And I’m not that old!” he insists, adding, “In between classes, staff stand in the hallways to cut down on ‘monkey business,’ and I am known as the ‘old guy.’”

Kris Strobel, regional program manager for AmeriCorps, will be filling 88 Math Corps and Reading Corps tutor positions in the St. Cloud area for the next school year. “I get most of the applicants by word of mouth or through a school that will identify someone for the program.” She also promotes AmeriCorps by visiting classes at SCSU, St. Cloud Technical College, going to job fairs and to Whitney Senior Center.

Math and literacy tutors come from all age groups. There are a few advantages to being at the older end of the age spectrum.  Strobel notes that “senior” tutors have more life skills to bring into the classroom, and they have a positive attitude. They’re able to handle the everyday challenges.

“The Reading Corps is 11 years old this year,” said Strobel, “and we are the largest state AmeriCorps program in the nation. Our goal is to help all Minnesota kids become successful readers by the end of third-grade.” Research shows that children learn to read through third-grade, and from fourth-grade on, they read to learn. There are 1,200 literacy tutors in the state working with children from age 3 through third-grade. “The Math Corps is in its fourth year, and the number of math tutors went from 25 last year to 160 this year. You ask-why?” Strobel said. “We work!”

The programs are located in 700 school and preschool settings around the state and 30,000 students were served last year. Math Corps and Reading Corps tutors receive extensive training before the school year begins. A year of service with AmeriCorps is a year of service to the country. It is similar to the Peace Corps, except located in the United States. Tutors can serve up to four terms.

In collaboration with the University of Minnesota and ServeMinnesota, Minnesota Reading Corps and Minnesota Math Corps have developed their own set of intervention strategies for students. Reading Corps tutors work one-on-one for 20-minute sessions with students up through third-grade. Their progress is monitored closely, and once the student reaches grade level, he or she is exited from the program, often in just two to three months.  Students qualify for the math or reading program based on the results of benchmark testing done in the fall, winter and spring.

An independent evaluation of Minnesota Reading Corps completed by the Corporation for National and Community Service recently found that elementary students with Reading Corps tutors achieved significantly higher literacy levels than those without a tutor. Another finding was that students at higher risk of academic failure significantly outperformed those without tutors. Minnesota Education Commissioner Dr. Brenda Cassellius had high praise for Reading Corps, stating it “has been a key partner in our efforts to ensure all students are reading well by third-grade.”

Strobel, who got her master’s degree in non-profit management, not only hires tutors but is also an AmeriCorps support staff member. The tutors get a living stipend and an educational award, which can be used toward student loans. “You won’t get rich off the stipend, but some people become tutors for the educational award,” said Strobel. “If you are 55 or older, you can designate the award to go to a child or a grandchild. It’s in place and available to use for seven years.”

Strobel finds that it’s harder hiring tutors for Math Corps because many people feel that they are not good at math.

Kustritz has not decided if he will return as a Math Corps tutor for another year. “It’s a big commitment and I take that seriously,” he said. “But, I have a lot of projects that I need to get to.”

Full-time and part-time tutors are needed at many schools and preschool programs for the coming year. To learn more or to apply, visit www.MinnesotaMathCorps.org or www.MinnesotaReadingCorps.org.

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