As Dallas students head back to school, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas (BCBSTX) employees are helping children struggling to read.
The sooner the outreach, the better. Studies show children reading below grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those reading at grade level. And 87% of reading-proficient first graders go on to read at their level in fourth grade and higher.
To help young children in Dallas stay on track, BCBSTX has partnered with Dallas Independent School District and nonprofit Innovations for Learning since the 2013-14 school year. Volunteer mentors are matched with struggling students who connect via the online literacy platform TutorMate to practice reading techniques.
Since the partnership started, 42 BCBSTX volunteers have spent more than 144 hours with children in six classrooms. That support became particularly impactful after schools shut down or went virtual during the pandemic, says Karen Henry, who recently retired from her role as the Dallas division representative for TutoMate after more than five years with the nonprofit.
“To have volunteers call in is a great help in such a challenging year,” Henry says.
During the 2021-22 school year, nine BCBSTX employees volunteered more than 18 hours with children at J.N. Irvin Elementary School in Dallas.
“I hear over and over from teachers that having someone pay attention to students and listen gives the kids confidence, increases reading capabilities and builds a relationship with an adult,” Henry says.
Almost 80% of teachers said their students gained self-confidence from the experience, according to a recent TutorMate survey. The program also helped students develop their communication skills and enjoyment from reading, respondents said.
“Many children don’t have the opportunity for parents to sit down and read with them,” says Cedrina Falkner-Shaw, manager of BCBSTX’s C1 Innovation Lab in Dallas and a TutorMate volunteer since 2017. “It’s rewarding that I can be that person and give them my support.”
For 30 minutes during lunch each week she connects with a child in grade one or two to read books, practice pronunciation and develop reading skills.
“Thirty minutes is not a lot of time, but it really makes an impact on them,” she says.
The partnership is among the community-based organizations and programs focusing on youth development, mentoring and tutoring that BCBSTX supports through grants, sponsorships and employee volunteerism. So far this year, 115 employees in Texas have volunteered more than 3,000 hours teaching, tutoring, coaching and mentoring with organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and local Girl Scouts groups.
“Being able to get involved in a small way beginning with young children is important to us,” says Sheena Payne, BCBSTX’s director of community affairs. “Education is one of the keys to healthy outcomes.”
Teachers believe TutorMate participants quickly become better readers. Nearly 65% of teachers surveyed said their students moved up at least one reading level.
For Falkner-Shaw, the end-of-school-year party where the kids, their teachers and other tutors meet and celebrate their work is one of the best parts of the program.
“It’s always fun to meet them in person, see their little faces and sit with them and have a conversation,” she says. “Taking the time to build a foundation for a child by strengthening their reading skillset is so rewarding. I’d recommend anyone considering the TutorMate program to go for it.”