Conner Lutz, 18, was late for baseball practice at Canyon del Oro High School on May 7. He's been late two times each week for most of the season, he said, adding, "Coach is alright with it because I do this."

What he's doing is helping 8-year-old Austin Berkbigler hone his reading skills at Harelson Elementary School, 826 W. Chapala Drive. Dressed in his baseball uniform, Lutz patiently helped Berkbigler navigate his way through a reading passage on - ironically - sports teams' uniforms. At another table, one of Lutz's classmates was trying to get the attention of her two charges, who were doing their level best to entertain each other and ignore their tutor.

"You see that?" Lutz said, pointing to the other table. "I used to have two kids, too. One of them left, thank God. I had to put them on opposite sides of the table and try to teach them … it was so hard. The one thing (tutoring) has taught me is appreciating teachers. I've started being a lot nicer to mine."

Lutz is one of 15 CDO students who volunteered this year at Harelson's after-school reading program. The brainchild of first-grade teacher Tanya Glover, "Read-ing Crew" started in October when Glover realized some children were not reading at grade level.

"What we saw here at Harelson were gray-area kids, kids who needed help in reading but were not in special education," Glover said.

In the past, Harelson had been afforded funds to pay for a specialized reading teacher to aid primary children in reading skills. That program, called Reading Quest, was eliminated last year due to district budget cuts. Reading Crew, an unfunded, all-volunteer program, fills the gap, Glover said.

First-through third-grade teachers were surveyed in early October and asked if they had students "who could use extra reading help," Glover explained. Forty names were submitted; of those, 25 parents said they would want their child to participate.

Glover knew she could not provide all that extra help by herself, so she enlisted the aid of Ann Jansen, Harelson's behavioral intervention specialist, and Mary Swiderski, a counselor at CDO, 25 W. Calle Condordia. Jansen and Swiderski work together each October to put on Harelson's Peace Week and when Jansen heard Glover needed help for an after-school reading program, she called Swiderski, who in turn sent out the cry to members of CDO's Link Crew, a mentoring organization set up to help underclassmen adjust to high school. Fifteen students signed up for the Harelson project.

"High school kids need to feel like they matter, too," Swiderski said. "The (Harelson) program is great because the kids see the growth in the elementary students and they feel like they really made a difference."

Kristen Haskell's third-grade daughter, Melanie, participated in Reading Crew and Haskell said her daughter's reading improvement was due entirely to "her being attached to Elise," a Link Crew member who tutored Melanie.

"I was disappointed at first that there wasn't a reading specialist because I was worried about my daughter's skills," Haskell said. "But she got more than just reading help in the program, she got a role model with Elise. She looked up to her and wanted to impress her and so got better at reading. It was so important to her and I absolutely loved the program."

Glover trained the CDO students in mid-October on how to use the curriculum she had developed for Reading Crew. For the most part, the tutors work one-on-one, in two 45-minute sessions each week.

"The system is something I use in my own classroom, a folder system that has individual assignments based on each child's needs," said Glover. "They work on sight words, phonics, comprehension, fluency, everything about reading. The teachers tell me they have really noticed a difference in kids who are in the program."

Harelson third-grade teacher Denise Teaque said the improvement in children who participated in Reading Crew is "huge."

"I had one little girl I was so worried about with reading I wanted to have her tested for a learning disability," said Teaque, who has taught 15 years. "Since being in Reading Crew, she has grown at least one grade level in reading in six months. Tanya's easily the best reading teacher I have ever been exposed to, and the way she figures out what each child needs is amazing."

On a recent Wednesday, 7-year-old Wesley Thacker was rushing through a reading passage on the creation of the Sesame Street television program. He would skip words and his Reading Crew tutor, 16-year-old Sean Romero, would patiently bring him back to each missed word, using a magic marker as a pointer.

"Hey kiddo," Sean said, tapping on the book with the marker, "focus here. C'mon, we're almost done, you can do it."

After finishing his lesson, Wesley said he loved Reading Crew because Sean "is my friend."

"I like him so much I think he should be president," Wesley said, beaming.

Glover hopes to continue the program next year, but says it will have to be "arranged differently because it is very time consuming this way."

"I have to spend an extra 90 minutes each day developing the program and supervising the students," she said. "We want to write some grants this summer to get money to pay somebody to supervise the sessions or help me develop lessons."

Harelson also provides its own set of volunteers yearly in a 13-year-old course called the Inside-Outside Program.

Kathy Woods, a sixth-grade teacher and creator of the program, said nearly 1,200 students have gone through it since its inception. Every Harelson sixth-grader participates, and the course divides the year into four developmentally appropriate segments concerning the study of the individual nature of adolescents, how to work in a group, interdependence and academic achievement.

The semester on interdependence has the sixth-graders "take the new skills they've learned in the first two quarters and put them into practice serving the community at Rillito Center," said Woods.

Rillito Center, 266 E. Pastime Road, serves profoundly disabled students in the Amphitheater Public Schools district who are unable to be mainstreamed in regular classrooms.

The Harelson sixth-graders go to Rillito in groups of 15, working at the center two hours a day for a week. Upon completing their week of service, they write reflection papers describing their experience.

"Some don't have good experiences, they are never completely comfortable with the kids at Rillito, but the point is to learn about yourself through giving back to the community," said Woods. "The papers help them identify their feelings and learn about themselves."

Linda Haller, Amphi special education coordinator, said the program has been highly successful.

"It's been wonderful," Haller said. "The idea was to sensitize (non-handicapped) kids to kids with special needs. Our kids at Rillito continue with their normal routine and the Harelson kids come in and spend time one-on-one with them in the classroom. I've had tons of positive feedback from my parents because the Harelson kids will see the Rillito kids out in the community and stop and say, 'hi' and it just makes a world of difference to them."

Woods said she and fellow sixth-grade teachers work all year "to get our students to the place where they are self-directed enough that they can (go work at Rillito) without an immediate teaching supervisor."

"This is all about giving back to the community," she said. "Adolescents, by their nature, are very self-focused. The Inside-Outside Program came out of research about adolescence … it helps them be successfull socially, academically and out in the community. It is about 'Who am I on the inside and how can I affect positively my outside community?' The kids leave us confident, knowing who they are, and able to stand firmly on their own two feet."

She said a lot of the children who leave Harelson return in later years to tell their teachers that they have gone into the "helping professions" such as teaching or health care.

Amy Ruboyianes, 25, remembers her first trip to Rillito during the program's initial year.

"I worked with the high school autistic group. I was very scared because you think these kids are fragile and you're afraid you might hurt them some way," said Ruboyianes. "But you find out they want the same things we do: companionship, attention, friendship. It took getting used to the fact that they have to be taught differently, but once I realized that, I felt very comfortable. It was a nice eye opener to see a different group of kids and how they learn."

It was such a good experience that Ruboyianes got her degree in special education with an emphasis in the profoundly disabled and now teaches at Rillito.

"I didn't think I'd be a special education teacher in sixth-grade, but after my experience (in the Inside-Outside Program), I knew this is what I wanted to do," she said. "I think it is an extremely beneficial experience for (non-handicapped) students. It isn't always easy, but it is good for exposing the kids to a different part of life. Some kids may think they are having a hard time in school or with their friends and then they come here and see they could have it a lot worse and it teaches them a lot of acceptance of different people and different learning styles."

Haller said she has many students who participated in the Rillito volunteer program through Harelson who then come back and volunteer as high school students.

"I honestly can't say enough good about this program - it has been great for our kids here and for the Harelson kids as well," she said.

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