From Dysfunction to Coordination: America Reads at the University of Minnesota
The America Reads Program at the University of Minnesota went through many changes in its first several years. This article describes the process of moving from a decentralized effort to a much more effective and coordinated one at a large institution of 28,000 students. “Lessons learned” are also included.
University of Minnesota
Director, America Reads Program
The America Reads Program at the University of Minnesota went through many changes in its first several years. In order to increase effectiveness, the university focused on greater coordination among departments. This effort has resulted in greater efficiency as well as program growth, strength, and satisfaction.
In early September 1998, several days after I started my new job as director of the University of Minnesota America Reads Program, I called one of the schools that had been recommended to me as a good site for placing reading tutors. When I spoke to the literacy coordinator there and asked if she wanted tutors from the university’s America Reads Program, she bluntly told me that she never wanted to see another tutor from the university again.
Only then did I realize how challenging my new position may be. The first issue for me was to find out who was involved, especially since the University of Minnesota is huge, with 28,000 undergraduates and several campuses. Five different offices on campus were sending “America Reads” tutors into the community.
My position was created to bring some coordination to the disparate efforts. The director of the service-learning office, known as the Career and Community Learning Center (CCLC), was very supportive of improving our systems. I quickly discovered that in addition to CCLC, I needed to work closely with the Student Employment office that gave the referrals and the Financial Aid office that allocated FWS money to the students.
I started talking with the five offices on campus that sent U of M students as tutors into the community. Each of them had to be assigned a work referral number and had to understand the process for hiring and placing tutors that I was developing quickly. Each office handled the payroll separately, and keeping track of the overall payroll was impossible. When central administration agreed to take charge of the payroll for all offices the next year, I felt as if the program had taken a giant step forward. I also created a tutor training. One month from the day I started, I did our first training for tutors hired from across the university. It wasn’t perfect, but I knew that I could improve it in time.
The first year felt like one challenge after another, but we did send about 70 tutors into the community and began to establish reflection sessions and good relationships with schools and community centers. I also worked closely with several literacy specialists at the university and in the community to develop and refine the tutor training. But each office at the univesrsity was still working independently, with little idea of what was going on with others.
In the second year, I was able to hire a VISTA volunteer to work with me on the day- to-day details of recruiting tutors, which freed me to work on the bigger issues. In order to develop better communication, I started holding biweekly meetings of all the offices involved with America Reads. We discussed what we were doing and issues that concerned us. We instituted contracts with the sites and began to plan and hold reflection sessions together at least once a month. We also developed celebrations for the tutors and discussed how we could honor the community partners.
We decided to start a partners’ luncheon where we invited site liaisons to the university, treated everyone to a nice lunch, and then discussed issues that were of interest to all of us. Many of our concerns were shared by the community partners, and we tried to resolve the issues together. One suggestion we implemented immediately was to have each site supervisor sign each tutor’s time sheet and fax it to the university office, which then verified the hours and signed each time sheet again before it went to payroll.
Time sheet and payroll procedures were a topic of much discussion and trial and error for the first few years until we finally developed a system that everyone could use. We now lay out very clear guidelines for the tutors about the hiring process and have separate guidelines for filling out and turning in time sheets. Both the tutors and the community sites sign formal contracts. We also meet twice a year with the Financial Aid, Work Study, and Human Resource offices. In part, we continue to meet just to keep those relationships active because good relationships are at the core of every aspect of our program.
By the third year, the program had grown enormously: we had consolidated to three University offices sending out tutors and each one hired about 115 students (see organizational chart). In addition, I worked with CCLC to train students in several service learning classes and place them as reading tutors at community sites. All together, we had about 500 reading tutors in the community.
With so many tutors, our reflection sessions had become very complicated; we were not satisfied that we were meeting the tutors’ needs or our need to know them and hear their feedback on their sites. Many tutors did not attend the reflection sessions because they felt their absence wouldn’t be noticed, even though attendance was mandatory. We altered the system so that each office would hold separate reflection sessions, but all the tutors would attend an initial training and several large events during the year.
For the past several years, this system has worked well. Each office plans the monthly events slightly differently, depending upon the interests and needs of the tutors; the groups are much smaller and the communication is more personal. At the large all-tutor events, we secure speakers who will inspire the tutors, broaden their view of literacy, and reinforce the joy of reading. In one year we might have a professor, an expert on the spoken word, and a local children’s book illustrator.
If I were to establish this program again, I would:
- Emphasize a cooperative model of program development, stressing that all resources will be shared by the offices involved.
- Arrange a meeting with all the financial departments (i.e., Financial Aid and Student Employment) as soon as possible so that the procedures for job referrals, time sheets, and payroll are clear.
- Meet with the university’s civic engagement/service learning office to co-coordinate the effort and become familiar with trainings and workshops offered by them.
- Bring together all University offices interested in hiring FWS student tutors to establish contracts for students and sites, create hiring procedures, and discuss supervisory roles.
- Meet with community site coordinators for open discussion of expectations and program goals.
- Nurture all these relationships continually because strong relationships are the key to the success of the program.
What happened to the community site that never wanted to see another university tutor? I persevered and convinced her to try once more, which she did. That school has become one of our most successful partners.