Giving kids a helping hand with literacy

On weekday mornings, Mark Schulman is an options trader caught up in the heat of battle on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange.

Tuesday afternoons with Janio follow a much less frantic pace.

That's the time when the 32-year-old Schulman usually gets together with 9-year-old Janio Diaz at an after-school center in San Francisco.

Schulman helps Janio with his homework, and he helps him improve his reading. It's the kind of one-on-one instruction Janio is unlikely to get in his regular classroom, and it's the kind of attention that could help light a spark for learning that might otherwise never get ignited.

And it's a scene played out in dozens of San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula classrooms and after-school centers, thanks to a program called the Jewish Coalition for Literacy.

"There is no question this program works, and it's actually been kind of amazing to watch," said Lynne Juarez, the director of the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center in San Francisco, where Schulman meets with Janio once or twice a week.

"I've seen it in about four cases, kids just taking off — kids who were kind of getting lost in the numbers because there was nobody really paying attention to them," she added.

"From my perspective, it's the single most important thing we've done for schoolchildren that I can think of."

Locally, the JCL was launched last year by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. In San Francisco and on the Peninsula, the program is a joint project between the JCRC and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

In its first year, the JCL trained more than 200 volunteers and matched up about 140 of them with students.

Project organizers are currently on a huge recruiting drive for Year 2, looking to sign up and place nearly 600 volunteers.

That kind of rapid expansion isn't unprecedented. Boston was the pilot program for the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, and in the first three years, volunteer participation there zoomed to nearly 1,000 people.

Since the Boston program was started in 1998, the program has taken off in other cities as well. There are more than 40 affiliates, and last year there were some 6,000 volunteers, predominantly from but not limited to the Jewish community.

"It's a great program and I'm a huge believer in it," said Schulman, a San Francisco resident. "It's so important to get these kids reading. Even if it's only an hour a week, any little bit helps."

The aim of the program is simple: to match volunteers with kids in kindergarten through the third grade who need help, especially with their reading. Only one hour per week is required, although many volunteers give two or three times that.

"For kids who can't read by the time they've finished third grade, we're sentencing them to a lifetime of hardship and deprivation," said Pat Forte, principal at Sherman Elementary School in San Francisco. The school had six JCL volunteers last year and "is looking forward to having more" this year.

"By the fourth or fifth grade, it turns into resistance to reading, and we want to try to catch it before then, which is why having the Jewish Coalition volunteers is so important," Forte added.

The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy was started three years ago by Leonard Fein, the founder of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the former editor of Moment magazine.

He started it in response to President Clinton's "America Reads" challenge, which aims to place one million volunteers in U.S. classrooms to help with reading.

In a column in the Forward last year, Fein wrote: "Jews have what might well be regarded as a surplus of literacy — and a proper regard, born both of morality and self-interest, for the health of society. Hence, a near-perfect match of need and resource, NJCL is the matchmaker, the shadchan."

Fein will be in the Bay Area next week to help the local JCL begin its second year. Three kickoff events are scheduled.

Karen Tamis, director of JCL locally, said as pleased as she was with the 1999-2000 program, she's hoping to triple volunteer participation this school year.

She is encouraging anyone from high-school age to seniors to sign up in the next few weeks. Volunteers will attend one of six 2-1/2-hour training sessions scheduled between Sept. 20 and Oct. 23.

The program is funded by a several sources, including a $108,400 grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the JCF. There are three full-time staff members, and the second-year budget is about $250,000.

"It's a very rewarding volunteer experience," Tamis said, "working with the same kid every week for the whole school year. You're able to see the progress in the student and the amazing relationship that develops."

Steve Abramowitz of San Francisco, who books guests for a KNBR-Radio sports talk show, volunteered last year and was placed at the Richmond Beacon Back on Track program, a two-hour program Tuesday nights for students in need of extra help.

He found it very challenging to work with a fourth-grader who was more interested in playing than in learning, and said that in five months of tutoring, he didn't see much progress in his student's reading and writing skills.

Yet Abramowitz, 32, was able to tap his creative juices. He came up with a baseball card game to quiz Ben, and also taught him to play chess. He also got Ben started on a vocabulary book in which he wrote down words for which he didn't know the definitions.

"It was really tough," said Abramowitz, who used to teach religious school at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

"But I realize the program is extremely worthwhile, and not just on the kid's end but also on the tutor's end. When you're teaching a kid and the light bulb goes on and they get it, it's such a worthwhile feeling. And to be in a Jewish organization that makes such a meaningful difference in a kid's future via learning is an irreplaceable experience."

Jeanne Rosenblum, a 72-year-old San Francisco retiree, said her heart was warmed many times during her volunteer hours at Sutro School in San Francisco, where she often read to a class of first-graders in addition to doing one-on-one work.

"On the last day of school, they gave me a card that everyone signed," she said.

There was a particularly heartwarming, albeit misspelled, note from a 6-year-old whom Rosenblum tried to help, a girl whose attention span was short and who fidgeted a lot.

Her note on the card said, "Thank you for the halp. I nedid it a lot. Love, Nicole."

The program was not without growing pains in Year 1, though. One grandfather volunteer, for example, often felt he was being used as a babysitter, plopped down in front of a third-grade class to read a story every week.

Although "reading aloud to a whole class is definitely part of the program," said Tamis, that volunteer had very little one-on-one activity with the students and is asking to be placed at a different school this year.

Another volunteer, who won't be coming back this year because she is too busy, didn't have a very positive experience in an after-school program, where "kids have been in school all day and really don't want to be tutored. They just want to play."

Said Tamis, "We are new, so it's going to take awhile to iron some things out. That's why this year we are concentrating our efforts on fewer schools, so there's a real understanding throughout the school and the teachers know what we're all about."

At Sherman Elementary, Forte characterized her experience with the JCL as wholly positive. One of the best aspects of the program, she said, is that the volunteers arrive with 2-1/2 hours of training, which JCL supplements with additional training workshops throughout the year.

"The comments that I get from the teachers is that it's such a relief for them to have volunteers that have received training because then they don't have to take time away from the children to teach or train the volunteers," Forte said. "They come in and hit the ground running."

When Schulman, the options trader, first met with Janio, he was a second-grader "a little behind in his reading." Schulman met with him once a week initially and then bumped it up to twice a week occasionally.

He also did something few other volunteers did: He continued to tutor him over the summer, at the Tule Elk center, a program for students from low-income families run by the San Francisco Unified School District.

Once, he met him at Tule Elk and took him to a San Francisco Giants baseball game. He will remain Janio's tutor this year, as well.

"He's a great kid," Schulman said. "The first time I met with him, it was like nothing to him. He jumped right into it."

Schulman uses a book series and flash cards specially designed to help young readers, but it's still a challenge, he said.

"Although maybe his reading didn't progress as much as I would have liked, I developed a great relationship with him," Schulman said. "I definitely made a difference for him in getting more excited about school and reading, and gaining more confidence in his abilities."

To volunteer for the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, call (415) 977-7460, (650) 494-7180 or (510) 839-2900 ext. 272. Kickoff events are Monday at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St.; Tuesday at Peninsula Sinai Congregation, 499 Boothbay Ave., Foster City; and Wednesday at U.C. Berkeley Hillel, 2736 Bancroft Way. All begin at 7:30 p.m.

Other Page One Story

11 young Iranian Jews may be languishing in prison

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.