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LEARN UNITED: Reading Tutor Program

“Up to fourth grade, you learn to read; after fourth grade, you read to learn,” goes an old elementary education maxim. Turns out, modern science agrees.

Research indicates most students spend kindergarten through the end of their third grade years acquiring basic reading skills. Beginning in fourth grade, however—and continuing on through high school—they employ these skills to research, problem-solve, think critically, act upon ideas and share knowledge.

The problem is, two-thirds of American fourth graders currently read below grade-level. These students will likely remain poor readers for the rest of their academic careers—studies show that without intervention, nearly 75% will never catch up. What’s more, they tend to fall behind in other subjects, as well. Not only does this erode high school graduation rates; it can lead to behavioral and social problems carried well into adulthood.  

“Clearly, reading is a building block to life success,” says Wayne Stevens, President of United Way of Southeast Alaska. Teaming up with corporate sponsor Coeur Alaska, United Way runs the fledgling LEARN UNITED: Reading Tutor Program, specifically targeting early childhood literacy in Juneau, with future sights set on the entire region.

Now in its second year, the LEARN UNITED: Reading Tutor Program works with the public school system to provide constructive guidance, positive encouragement and a literacy-rich setting for elementary school-aged children. Specifically, the program identifies struggling students and matches them with their own volunteer reading tutor.

Here’s how it works: volunteer reading tutors meet with K-2 students one-on-one, twice a week, for thirty minutes a session. These sessions take place during normal school hours or during the afterschool rally program although never instead of other enrichment programs (or “specials”) such as art, music and physical education. Tutors help students practice reading aloud, discuss passages and provide simple instruction, covering such topics as alphabet, phonics and reading comprehension—as well as the key element of growing into an engaged reader (and writer, for that matter): self-confidence.

“A little reassurance can make a huge difference,” says Stevens.

The LEARN UNITED: Reading Tutor Program arose from the United Way of Southeast Alaska’s “Literacy By Third Grade” campaign, coupled with Coeur Alaska’s desire to partner with the United Way and Juneau School District to make a sustainable difference in elementary school literacy.

Indeed, the worldwide United Way has also recently brought childhood literacy to the forefront, exemplified by a 10-year initiative to halve the high school drop-out rate by 2018, as well as the “Million Reading Tutors” campaign, which seeks to engage one million new volunteer readers, tutors and mentors.

“It’s a multi-pronged effort,” says Stevens, illuminating the broader scope.

He cites another recent partnership with Southeast Regional Resource Center (SERRC) to build the Gruening Park Family Learning Center, as well as ongoing support for the Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC) to participate in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, through which every child in Juneau can register to receive a free, new book in the mail every month from birth to age five.

“Reading is one of those rare skills that once you acquire, it’s pretty hard to lose,” Stevens says. “Plus, every dollar you invest in early childhood saves between $15-$20 in future costs to society. That’s a pretty good return on your investment.”

In the case of the LEARN UNITED: Reading Tutor Program, Coeur Alaska is the principal sponsor, and, according to Stevens, a prime force behind the program’s success.

“Coeur Alaska is always looking for ways to make a sustainable, positive impact in our community,” says Wayne Zigarlick, Vice President and General Manager of Coeur Alaska. “Literacy is the educational cornerstone for individual and community success, and this investment in our children’s ability to read can help increase the graduation rate, reduce the dropout rate and encourage students to pursue secondary education opportunities.”

As the program’s sponsor, Coeur Alaska provides funding for resources geared to meet each student’s learning needs: books, lesson plans, supporting materials and assessment tools.

In doing so, Coeur Alaska sets a positive example of corporate citizenship for students, to say nothing of all the personal role models it supplies—many LEARN UNITED: reading tutors are themselves Coeur employees.

“We encourage our employees as well as other community members to join us in supporting this program,” Zigarlick says. “Just one hour a week is all it takes to make a difference.”

At this point, the LEARN UNITED: Reading Tutor Program serves Riverbend Elementary School, its pilot school, although preliminary steps have been set in motion for branching out, this year adding a volunteer coordinator position.

“We’re hoping to grow the program, and are still recruiting volunteers every day,” says Stevens. “Ultimately, though, we hope to use the program as a model for school districts across all of Southeast Alaska.”

Interested in becoming a LEARN UNITED reading tutor? All volunteer tutors receive a two-hour training session in the use of reading tutor materials, as well as how to deliver instructional support and interact productively with younger students. Learn more at or email the LEARN UNITED Reading Tutor Program coordinator at