USC Reader Ninfa Acosta works with first-grader Anna Vela.
“To read with a child is a gift for life,” says Norwood principal Rita Flynn. The USC students employed by the USC Readers Program, tutoring neighborhood children who need help with reading, find that their rewards go far beyond a paycheck.
USC READERS, a work-study program that promotes reading at neighborhood schools in one-on-one tutoring sessions, holds a prominent place in the literacy movement at Norwood Street School.
Officially begun in May 1997, USC Readers consists of 66 USC students, mostly undergraduates, who are trained and placed in each of the Family of Five Schools. Hiring priority for the Readers Program goes to students who are from the community and plan to live there while attending USC. Preference is also given to students who want to work during summers and holiday breaks as well as the academic year. Readers work between eight and 20 hours per week at the schools; at Norwood they’ve committed more than 6,000 total hours of literacy instruction.
“The development of a consistent relationship with one child, revolving around books and learning, is the most effective teaching connection,” says Richard Cone, who started the program and administers it under USC’s Joint Educational Project. “It not only builds the child’s self-esteem to have individual attention, it communicates to the child the importance and joy of learning to read.”

USC Readers. Top row from left: Joel VanderKloot, program coodinator Yezenia Hernandez, Ninfa Acosta, Rigo Lara. Bottom
row from left: Fiona Basa, George Holman, Johanna Sanchez.

USC STUDENTS typically work with young readers who are slightly below grade level and may need just a little extra attention to pull them into books and reading. They meet for approximately an hour each session, though not every minute is devoted to reading per se.
“In order for readers to form a bond between themselves and their students, there needs to be time for conversations and sharing beyond that of reading,” Cone explains.
Senior Joel VanderKloot, who lives within walking distance of Norwood, cites two important tips he’s learned from his experience in USC Readers: “First, you don’t want to say or do anything that will make the kids think there’s something wrong with them. And second, you don’t want them to think that reading is something horrible that they have to do.”
If a child doesn’t want to read, Vander-Kloot looks for ways to engage his or her interest. “I tutored a boy who didn’t like reading but was interested in hockey,” he says. “So I brought in an issue of Sports Illustrated that had an article about hockey. We looked at the photos and began by reading the captions.” Soon the boy wanted to read the entire story.
Cone and his Readers have an agenda, one they share with Norwood principal Rita Flynn. “We really want to bring kids to books,” he says. “Textbooks and phonics worksheets will probably always be used to teach reading, but we want to introduce students to books. Why learn to read if you can’t read books?”

THE USC READERS Program blossomed from President Clinton’s America Reads initiative and is made possible by a broad-based funding collaboration that includes the federal work-study program, the USC Financial Aid Office, the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the Joint Educational Project and a grant from the USC Neighborhood Outreach Fund.

USC Readers Johanna Sanchez and Rigo Lara work on reading skills with Norwood students Omar Yepez and Narcisco Estreda, Jr.

The federal government, through America Reads, provides 100 percent of the work-study money paid to students who actually tutor. And 75 percent of the work-study money paid to other USC students who serve as coordinators at the various Readers Program sites is covered by America Reads.
The coordination component is crucial, according to all involved.
“Urban public schools are so overloaded with jobs and tasks that we had to find a way to make our resources a help and not a hindrance,” says senior Yezenia Hernan-dez, the Readers program coordinator at Norwood.
“I find out how many openings there are for Readers, place the Readers and make sure they’re on the job and work with the teachers to identify which children need help, so that it’s not falling on the school’s administrators or teachers to provide that kind of infrastructure.”
Flynn agrees. “It would be difficult for our staff to manage the program,” she says. “Having an on-site coordinator makes it work. And the Readers are wonderful. They’re valuable adjunct faculty who’ve built relationships, friendships, with our children.”
Flynn also believes the USC Readers have in turn profited in ways that go beyond financial aid. Joy Lee, a sophomore with a double major in pre-med and Spanish, supports Flynn’s hunch. To her, even the most challenging kids offer a rewarding experience.
“I worked with a fourth-grader who didn’t know the alphabet or sounds when we started,” she recalls. “It was frustrating. But seeing his improvement turned out to be so gratifying.” Though the student missed the critical third-grade gateway, Lee is optimistic that with continued tutoring he may be reading at grade level in a couple of years.
“USC students get so much from this kind of work,” says Cone, “and to have a program where we can pay them to do service is a wonderful combination. A number of our Readers have decided to go into teaching because of their experience. They’ve discovered this world of having people count on you, the feeling that you get when you’re contributing.”
“To read with a child, to give your time to a child, is a gift for life,” Flynn says. “Our children are beautiful. They’re warm and affectionate. The joy comes from the light in children’s eyes and in their touch. You know they appreciate the time and help that’s given.”

Anyone interested in volunteer literacy work at Norwood or other local schools can contact Michelle Blanchette at the USC Volunteer Center, (213) 740-9116.

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