Full-time tutors are coming to Philly schools to make reading more fun — and less like a chore

By the time kids reach the fourth grade, the function of reading shifts, and young students in Philadelphia are behind. A new nonprofit aims to bridge the gap.

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A woman in a purple shirt holds a stuffed owl in a classroom.

Kassundra Peterson of Joyful Readers discovers an owl puppet in a box of materials to be used by tutors in the coming school year at G.W. Childs Elementary School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When kids first start elementary school, they learn to read. Then they read to learn.

In Philadelphia, only about 30% of students in third grade read at grade level.

Joyful Readers, a new nonprofit, hopes to bump that number up by helping students strengthen their reading skills and find a love for books.

“I think a lot of people think about tutoring as an after-school program, but our program is five days a week and it’s integrated into the school day,” said David Weinstein, Joyful Readers’ founder and executive director. “It’s a different take on tutoring.”

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The organization is sending almost 30 AmeriCorps members to nine elementary schools across Philadelphia to serve as full-time reading tutors.

A group of people pose in front of a classroom.
The Joyful Readers crew gather at G. W. Childs Elementay school in South Philadelphia to prepare for the new school year. They are (from left) Alexandra Dillon, founder David Weinstein, A. Nichelle Morgan, Emily DeCarlo, Lila Jonas, and Kassundra Peterson. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Each participating school will have between two and four tutors to work directly with students throughout the school day, Monday through Friday, for the entire academic year.

“We’re talking about really small kids,” said Weinstein. “Reading can unlock worlds for them.”

Weinstein pointed to research that highlights the fourth grade as a turning point for young learners.

By the time kids reach the fourth grade, the function of reading shifts, and young students in Philadelphia are behind. To help address this critical foundation for future learning, the city created the Read by 4th initiative.

“Instead of learning how to read every day in school, you’re really reading in order to learn,” Weinstein said. “If you don’t have that ability, then you start to miss out on all sorts of learning.”

Weinstein has worked with Philly students from upper elementary to high school grades through City Year, an AmeriCorps program. Over the course of 15 years, he’s witnessed the challenges students face when they fall behind on their reading abilities.

“I just saw year over year, students who, because they were struggling to read well, were struggling in all aspects of school,” recalled Weinstein.

A man holds an open book in a classroom surrounded by stacks of books.
Joyful Readers founder David Weinstein prepares for the new school year at G.W. Childs Elementary School in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When he was younger, he struggled a bit too.

“My mom will tell anyone who asks that when I went into kindergarten, it was kicking and screaming, saying that I would never learn how to read,” said Weinstein, who grew up in New Jersey.

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But he eventually did learn. Thanks to a great support system at school, things clicked for him, and he’s loved reading ever since.

Now, Weinstein wants to pass on this critical skill to students in Philadelphia.

After years of research and conversations with Philly residents — and reassessing his career mid-pandemic — he decided that tutoring was the best way he could help young people.

That’s how Joyful Readers came to be.

Making reading more fun, and less like a chore

The 2022-23 academic school year will be the first for Joyful Readers. Weinstein expects tutors to work with close to 1,000 students across nine schools.

Just like School District of Philadelphia students, the tutors stepped into the classroom this week. But before they get to work, they will participate in a month-long training led by Joyful Readers staff and the AIM Institute for Learning & Reading.

The tutors will take a course called “Pathways to Proficient Reading” to learn about the science of reading — evidence-based practices for how kids learn to read — and how to build relationships with the kids themselves, along with their teachers.

A group of people in purple shirts gather around a long table with boxes full of reading worksheets and books.
Joyful Readers staff unpack materials to be used in the coming school year at G.W. Childs Elementary School. They are (from left) Emily DeCarlo, A. Nichelle Morgan, Kassundra Peterson, Alexandra Dillon and Lila Jonas. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

After their training, tutors will be assigned to schools that agreed to the program after vigorous outreach from Weinstein and his staff.

The participating schools include three district elementary schools, G.W. Childs, John Moffet, and Alexander K. McClure, along with six charter elementary schools: Mastery Charter Smedley, Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School, Mastery Charter School Clymer, Belmont Charter, Belmont Academy Charter, and Inquiry Charter School.

Andrea Gallimore, one of the Joyful Readers tutors, said she’s excited to connect with kids and make reading feel less like homework.

“In school, reading is kind of made out to be this chore,” said Gallimore. “I definitely want to take the part of reading for me that’s fun, and incorporate that into the tutoring.”

A woman smiles next to a desk, as she holds an open book.
Andrea Gallimore is an AmeriCorps member who is a serving as a reading tutor for Joyful Readers this year. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Gallimore)

The Wilmington, Delaware native, who’s in the process of relocating to Philly, is taking a gap year from her undergraduate studies at Temple University to save up for tuition.

Gallimore says she was drawn to AmeriCorps to serve communities and to Joyful Readers for her appreciation for books and love for kids.

“Growing up, reading had a big impact on my life. I think it definitely helped me, developmentally,” said the 21-year-old. “Being able to provide that kind of experience for kids now and help them see the importance of reading is something that is big for me.”

Gallimore will join 26 other AmeriCorp tutors, who range from 18 to almost 70 years old and feature an array of college education levels. Most of the tutors are people of color.

The tutors will be able to start working with students in October.

Those assigned to G.W. Childs Elementary School in South Philadelphia will work out of the library, surrounded by books and inspirational quotes.

One attributed to Frederick Douglass reads: “Once you learn to read, you’ll be forever free.”

“We’re so excited to have people working underneath that quote,” said Weinstein, who is looking forward to seeing students flourish as they learn to read. “I think it really embodies what we’re looking to do.”

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