Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties

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Open Books, Open Minds

December 21, 2016
Posted by: JCRC Staff

Bear a Torch – This week’s torchbearer, the Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL), is dedicated to eliminating childhood illiteracy by mobilizing tutors, engaging parents and expanding home libraries to help underserved public school children throughout the Bay Area. Inspired by Jewish values of social justice, JCL works in TITLE I schools with large numbers of English Learner students, where most students qualify for free or reduced price lunches and underperform on state tests.

Imagine a society where all children can read and are inspired to reach their full potential. ACT NOW by signing up to be a JCL volunteer reading tutor.

Torchbearer: Jewish Coalition for Literacy

It’s no coincidence that English language reading proficiency is required as part of the naturalization test to become a U.S. citizen. Literacy is one of the most essential and basic skills necessary for participation in democracy, in fact it’s a prerequisite. How else will people know their rights and duties? However, natural-born children in less fortunate circumstances often lack the opportunity to develop substantive reading skills. Understanding this need, the Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL) launched in the Bay Area in 1999. One of 27 independent affiliates of the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy (NJCL), JCL mobilizes approximately 350 volunteer reading tutors each year.

These tutors include middle school students from the Brandeis School of San Francisco who in 2015 began participating in a tutoring program to teach second graders at Buena Vista Horace Mann (BVHM) Community School, an underserved Spanish-immersion school in San Francisco's Mission District. The program, called Reading Buddies, pairs students from Brandeis and three other Jewish day schools with students from high-poverty public elementary schools, like BVHM, to read, write and learn together. Asked why he chose to participate, one Brandeis student replied, “I love working with younger kids and doing something to help other people.”

JCL also has many adult tutors who express similar sentiments. When he was interviewed earlier this year, volunteer JCL tutor Don Neuwirth was full of gratitude. A schoolyard planner by profession, Don volunteered through JCL as a reading tutor for six years and then was (in a happy, but unexpected turn of events) asked by the school to become a full-fledged substitute teacher. “I never would have imagined myself getting a credential and becoming a substitute teacher, let alone teaching in Spanish! But I am incredibly happy that I was able to find my higher calling,” he said.

Nava Schweig, a student at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, was inspired to become a tutor after a stint volunteering with JCL. She tutored second graders at Greenleaf Elementary School in Oakland, teaching them to love learning at a time crucial to their educational development – after third grade children shift from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.’ And Nava discovered how fulfilling the work can be:

I suppose for every teacher, there is something that keeps them going, a reason they haven’t stopped despite occasional frustration. For me, it is seeing kids have an “aha” moment, watching them come to love reading and the beauty of a challenge. What I find so amazing is that, before I was given this transformative volunteering opportunity, I never saw myself as someone who could make a difference in the lives of young children. But now I can’t ever imagine stopping.

The ability to read fluently is not only essential for citizenship, but also for very nearly every success in life, yet in 2015 only 28 percent of California third graders in public schools achieved reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. But if you’ve read this far, then you have the skills to help! JCL is offering courses now to train new tutors, sign up here.

Additional Resources

  • If you’re not available to tutor, consider Other Ways to Help, including supporting JCL’s 350+ volunteers by donating a new or gently used book, organizing a book drive or ordering the organization's book-filled Centerpieces for your next event or party.
  • Help the East Bay Children’s Book Project build literacy by putting books into the hands of children who have little or no access to them.
  • Get involved with Raising a Reader, whose evidence-based early literacy and parent engagement program focuses on strengthening family literacy routines and community literacy connections.
  • Consider volunteering with a summer program like Aim High, which expands opportunities for low-income middle school students and their teachers through free summer learning and enrichment.
  • Support the incredibly inspirational Summer Search, which helps students from low-income backgrounds develop the skills they need to succeed.
  • Participate as a mentor in the San Francisco Education Fund’s effort to harnesses the power of the community to equip every public school student with the skills to succeed in college, career and civic responsibility.
  • Join The Education Trust-West in advocating for educational justice and the high academic achievement of all California students, particularly those of color and living in poverty.