How Volunteers Can Support K–12 Instruction and Improve Student Reading Outcomes
By Jenny Inman
Dean of Students (and former Instructional Technology Coordinator) at Garton Elementary in Des Moines
Five strategies that our school is using to successfully leverage AmeriCorps members to help support offline literacy instruction.
We have a very diverse student body with a wide range of academic needs and strengths. Wanting to “fill a gap” in our student literacy proficiency—without having to take additional time away from instruction to assess individual students—we started looking for a solution to streamline and improve our current instruction and assessment processes.
We found what we were looking for in a new literacy program that we implemented in the fall of 2015 for grades K–5. Initially, we didn’t require all of our teachers to use the program as we wanted them to find a personal value in the program, not view it as just another mandate. For those teachers who decided to jump in and begin the implementation, the expectation was that they use it with fidelity to see how it supported their students’ literacy growth and development (i.e., with students meeting their recommended minutes and teachers logging in at least once a week to review the student performance data).
We initially built our implementation around our early adopters who found immediate value in how the personalized student instruction was delivered and the progress monitoring data that was provided without having to administer a test. We then built out our district-wide implementation from there.
To support our mission of improving student literacy proficiency, we also trained our AmeriCorps members, located in 26 buildings across the district, to be able to deliver the offline instruction provided by the Lexia Core5 Reading program. The following five strategies have ensured that those volunteers can effectively support instruction and have led to improved student reading outcomes:
Take the time to train the volunteers. We trained our AmeriCorps members to access reports and provide instruction based on that data—data that tells them specifically what skills each student needs help with and provides the corresponding scripted lesson for them to deliver. By enabling our volunteers to be independent, we really maximized literacy support for students and made sure that we were able to meet those students’ needs with direct instruction.
Create a consistent experience for students. AmeriCorps members (and volunteers in general), bring a variety of background experience to the table. But, they don’t always have the background and firsthand knowledge of working academically with students. Our literacy program gave us a starting point for those members to be able to feel like they’re really making an academic impact with our students. Having AmeriCorps members utilize the platform and the offline lessons helps keep the experience consistent. In other words, students from across our district who have AmeriCorps support are each getting a similar experience.
Ensure everyone works with a common set of tools. I worked with my supervisor to develop a comprehensive implementation plan. We wanted the program to be a centralized tool that our AmeriCorps members could use—a goal that stemmed from our need to standardize how our members were leveraged across buildings and what resources were available to them. Put simply, some had a lot of resources and some didn’t have many, so this was a way to help ensure that everyone had the same tools.
Help volunteers understand the data. Give your volunteers the time they need to really experience the program. Allow them to see the data. This will help them fully understand, when responding to student needs, just how they are giving students exactly what they need to improve academically. For example, we gave our volunteers access to the data of the student populations that they were working with and then taught them how to access the data daily (and follow up when students were flagged for offline instruction).
Tweak your approach as needed. Because we did our literacy program onboarding with AmeriCorps after we did it with a number of teachers, we basically just tweaked our presentation and shaped it around what our volunteers would need to know to be able to deliver effective offline instruction. We continue to make sure that everyone has an overview of what the literacy program is, what it does, and how we’re using it.
Ultimately, leveraging the power of your volunteer corps to improve student reading outcomes requires an understanding of the instruction, the students’ needs, the data, and the resources themselves. When you take the time to address each one of those elements, understand why you’re leveraging volunteers, and realize why you’re delivering this level of instruction in a very personalized way—you can implement a successful program that’s supported by both teachers and volunteers.