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Kalamazoo needs reading tutors more than ever, but they are in short supply

SLD Read's sign sits among flowers and children's books atop a bookshelf with resources for tutoring children.
Nicole Morehouse
SLD Read's sign on top of a bookcase holding tutoring resources within the SLD Read building.

Four years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, some tutoring organizations around the Kalamazoo area are struggling to meet the need among children and adults.

Abbie Springstead, 9, works with a tutor at SLD Read in Portage. She has two sessions a week. Springstead’s father, Jim, said SLD Read’s services have completely changed his daughter’s reading capabilities since she started the program.

Springstead waited for several months for the opportunity to work with a tutor at the organization. The waitlist typically has 40 to 45 students on it.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, SLD Read lost about half of its tutors. Kristen Potts is the CEO of SLD Read. She said that like Abbie, many students remain on the waitlist for months before being paired with a tutor. Some wait as long as a year.

“As soon as we get one student off that list, I’m almost positive at least one to two get added,” Potts said.

In Kalamazoo, the demand for reading tutors for children and adults has increased following the COVID-19 pandemic. But at least two organizations offering these services face a shortage of volunteers. (A third, Read and Write Kalamazoo, declined an interview request.)

Tutors and school officials say that without traditional classroom time for over a year, many students did not receive the support or practice in reading they normally would have. As a result, they are struggling to catch up to pre-pandemic reading levels.

As for the number of adult literacy volunteers, it was low even before Covid.

Getting "creative"

One organization that’s felt the pinch is Kalamazoo’s branch of Communities in Schools. The non-profit provides academic tutoring and other support services for students. CIS went from 735 volunteers during the 2019-20 school year to about 400 volunteers now – that’s about a 46 percent drop.

Artrella Cohn is the senior director for community engagement and student investment for CIS. She said the organization has had to “get creative” by placing students in groups to learn along with other students, or tutoring may be delayed until CIS can coordinate one-on-one tutoring.

“If a parent is ready for a kid to get started, but we don’t have a volunteer in that specific academic area, it might take us a month or something, or less, to get that specific area,” Cohn said.

While the organization says it manages to provide support to all its students, even with reduced volunteer numbers, Cohn said it’s harder to maintain its pre-pandemic standards for tutoring.

“We want the quality to stay up there too,” she said. “And so sometimes the figuring it out doesn’t match up with the quality that we really want.”

Both Portage’s SLD Read and Communities in Schools have changed their volunteering requirements in recent years. SLD Read no longer requires a bachelor’s degree to work with students. To help reinstate its previous standard of quality, Communities in Schools will begin literacy training for new volunteers starting next year.

“Our volunteers tend to really appreciate that because you don’t want to just be tutoring a kid for the sake of tutoring a kid,” Cohn said. “You’re obviously trying to help that kid be more successful in the classroom.”

"The always going to be there"

Tutor shortages have affected adult learners as well. There are 25,000 adults reading at or below a fourth-grade level in Kalamazoo. That’s according to the Kalamazoo Literacy Council, which helps adults in the Kalamazoo area learn to read.

In March 2020, the Council had 215 volunteers. Over the next three years, the Council lost 83 volunteers — an almost 39 percent decrease. Executive Director Michael Evans said the group is working on growing back.

“We are at about 150 volunteers at this point,” he said. “We’d like to be able to eclipse the 200 mark by the end of this year.”

That would still be a little short of its pre-pandemic number, and Evans said the group could not quite meet the need even then.

“The imbalance between the number of volunteers and the number of learners is always going to be there because there is, just by the statistics alone, more adult learners than our community has volunteers and services to provide that support for,” Evans said.

According to Evans, the group would need 50 more tutors than its goal number to fully staff the literacy centers it partners with around Kalamazoo. Doing this helps the Council place learners in group classes to ensure they’re receiving support as soon as they reach out. But only about half of the centers are open right now, compared to before Covid.