“Mr. Brucks” hears students all around Melissa Mizell’s fourth grade classroom at Sheridan Elementary in Bloomington call his name. Colton Brucks is an Illinois State senior majoring in physics teacher education who spends five days a week as Mizell’s tutor.
With 18 students in her classroom, Mizell, a reading specialist, can work with one group on reading skills while Brucks handles the rest of the classroom. A second-year tutor, Brucks plans to teach at the high school level and become the first teacher in his family.
“It gives me great experience for my own classroom later on,” said Brucks, who is from West Chicago. “It’s been a lot of fun. I’m going to miss it when I leave.”
Mizell was so impressed with Brucks last year that she specifically requested him as her tutor this school year.
“He does everything—small groups and one-on-one tutoring,” Mizell said. “I can focus on the lesson because he helps with behavior and keeping the class on task. He’s really good at what he does.”
It stands to reason that tutors can help struggling students, and they do that quite well. But, the good ones have an ability to help everyone involved—students, teachers, families, the community, and themselves.
Brucks is one of 108 tutors supplied to the Bloomington-Normal community through America Reads/America Counts, a federal program administered by Illinois State University’s Financial Aid Office. America Reads dates to 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton proposed the program as a way to ensure all children learn how to read by the end of the third grade.
The program partners elementary school students with college student-tutors who lend their expertise to new readers. America Reads’ tie-in with the Federal Work-Study program helps finance Illinois State graduate and undergraduate students’ educations by paying them to tutor.
There are now more than 1,400 colleges and universities participating in the program. Illinois State tutors serve locations across the Bloomington-Normal area, including elementary schools and after-school programs.
“This is unique to Illinois State,” said Lyn Morris, the program’s coordinator in Illinois State’s Financial Aid Office. “We have an after-school program based at ISU that provides individualized sessions at the local libraries and community centers. Our program is also year-round, including the summer session.”
Sixty percent of Illinois State’s tutors come from the College of Education, but there are also students representing a wide range of majors, including finance and cybersecurity. Tutors are on the job Monday through Friday, 7:45 a.m.–7 p.m., providing reading and math assistance for students in preschool through ninth grade.
Morris has led the program for the last four years. She said the college students appreciate that they are required to work only two hours per week and their schedules are based on their availability.
“I really enjoy working with Illinois State students and the community service part of the program,” Morris said.
Financial Aid Director Bridget Curl said the program, which started in the College of Education in 1996 before moving to Financial Aid in 1998, is a good fit because it matches up well with the University’s overall mission.
“ISU has a focus on civic engagement,” Curl said. “The community benefits from the service, but ISU students get multiple benefits: Federal Work-Study dollars; experience of working with kids, especially if they’re going into teaching; and graduating students get help by boosting their resumes.
“This is making an impact on someone’s life, and it started with not more than 20 tutors.”
The program has grown steadily under Morris. She enlists four Illinois State graduate students to help with administrative duties.
“I couldn’t do it without them,” Morris said. “They help with scheduling, payroll, recruiting, tutor training, and they evaluate a third of the tutors each semester. With over 100 tutors, whose schedules change each term, it’s a logistical masterpiece to get everything scheduled with requests from instructors, principals, program coordinators, and parents.”
Amber Allen ’18 is a Normal native with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the School of Communication, where she is now enrolled in a graduate program. This is her second semester working with America Reads and is now site coordinator. Allen acts as a liaison between parents and teachers and site supervisors. She also tutors at Bent Elementary in Bloomington in the kindergarten classroom of teacher and Illinois State alumna Kierra Leggin ’13, M.S. ’19.
“I work with the kids who need a little extra attention,” Allen said. “I’ll take them aside and work on their worksheets with them if they’re not getting it.”
Allen, who hopes to become a college professor, said being a tutor helps her students and their teacher.
“Any way I can be a blessing, that’s what I want to do,” she said.
Nana Dickson, a freshman English major from Hazel Crest, also tutors in Leggin’s classroom, in addition to one-on-one sessions at Normal Public Library. Dickson plans to attend law school and eventually practice child advocacy law. She employs an effective tutoring strategy.
“I tell them to bring a book from home so I know what they like,” she said. “Then I pick a harder book before we read their book.”
Dickson likes to save the fun reading for the end of a session. She also likes when she sees their progress. Recently she helped a young child who was having trouble writing the numeral 4.
“She couldn’t get it, but when she did, she tried to help the other three kids in the group,” Dickson said.
Leggin is in her seventh year as a teacher and has 21 students in her classroom. She appreciates what her Illinois State tutors do for her students and for her.
“It helps me because the tutors can give the kids special attention,” Leggin said. “Plus, I can see the progress when they return from working with a tutor in our small-group setting.”
Leggin likes the opportunity to mentor the college students as well.
“They ask me why I do certain things in the classroom,” Leggin said. “And I can help them with their clinicals.”
Ivania Zelaya Rodriguez teaches the second grade bilingual class at Bent Elementary in Bloomington. Rodriguez is new to teaching; she was an electronic engineer in her native Nicaragua. She moved to the United States a few years ago after marrying a local man. Because of her language skills, she was recruited to the classroom by a friend of her husband.
“Amigos,” she calls out to get her students’ attention. She then gives them instructions in Spanish. All around her room students begin to read a book of their choosing, mostly aloud.
Helping her is tutor Jake Welker. The Spanish education major learned Spanish in high school and while working in a restaurant. This is his second semester tutoring. Welker does a lot of one-on-one tutoring, which is what he was doing on this day.
At a small table, Welker and a student work on a colorful puzzle with images of a frog, a rose, a moon, a leaf. The girl is expected to match pieces by shape and color and then read the corresponding word printed above and below the image on the puzzle piece, for example: moon in English and luna in Spanish.
Welker is patient and encouraging. He is comfortable moving between English and Spanish and back again.
“Do you know the names of these letters?” he asks pointing at a puzzle piece.
The girl struggles to answer before saying she doesn’t need to know them.
“You do need to know your letters,” Welker said gently, reminding her of the different pronunciations of the same letter in the two languages.
“Can you read this for me?” he asks pointing at a new puzzle piece. “You have to read it and not just look at the picture.”
At one point Zelaya Rodriguez steps into the hall to check on how the lesson is going.
“She’s doing all right,” Welker said. “In Spanish she’s doing better.”
He asks the student to sound out the word. He guides her back and forth in both languages, and she seems challenged but up to the task.
“She likes puzzles,” Welker said. “She’s very proud when she puts pieces together.”
At the end, once they go through the whole box, Welker congratulates her for doing such good work.
“I feel like this prepares me for my future profession,” Welker said. “It doesn’t feel like working. It’s a good environment, and it’s pretty rewarding when they get it.
“Bilingual education is really important. They need to learn in both languages so they don’t fall behind.”
Three of the participating local schools have bilingual classrooms, and one-third of Illinois State’s tutors are strong or fluent in Spanish, Morris said.
“Parents with limited English or no English language skills reach out to the program for assistance,” Morris said. “Our tutors assist parents when completing enrollment forms, etc. All enrollment forms are available in Spanish, and ISU bilingual students are in great demand.”
The growth of America Reads at Illinois State is a result of referrals from local teachers who see their students improve, Morris said. And, the tutors keep coming, she said, because of the great training that comes recommended by the U.S. Department of Education and provided by faculty in the School of Teaching and Learning.
“Once we get ISU students in the programs, they stay because of the flexible hours and the training we provide in areas such as ‘Supporting Students with Learning Differences,’” Morris said. “Tutors have to know how to build trust with kids.”
For more information, to sign up your child for tutoring, or to become a tutor, contact Illinois State’s America Reads/America Counts Program: