2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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A Campaign for Equity: In Our Back Yard

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Vickie Ndibo

Vickie Ndibo and 29 other TC students sit and read for two hours with kids in neighborhood schools.

Pulling Up a Chair

Every day, Vickie Ndibo and 39 other TC students sit and read for two hours with kids in neighborhood schools.

As a doctoral student in Adult Learning and Leadership, Vickie Ndibo is new to working with elementary school students. But she already understands that when kids in the third grade at P.S. 125 yell in class, it's not always a bad thing. "When I come into the room each day, they yell, 'Oh, good, she's here!'" Ndibo says with a grin.

Ndibo has also learned that when you're working with struggling students, success must often be measured in tiny increments-sometimes as small as a single word.

"One day, I had a student who kept having problems reading a word," she says. "The next day he came back in and announced, 'I know that word now!' and wanted to go over it again."

Ndibo isn't a teacher-she's a TC Reading Buddy, one of 40 students the College deploys to local schools every day to read with six children for 20 minutes each. The way she sees it, it's the "each" that accounts for the warm welcome she gets from her kids.

"You get to actually listen to students, so they don't fight for your attention," she says. And because there's no set curriculum, Ndibo says, she can tailor lessons to the children-or even let them lead the way.

Ndibo and the other Reading Buddies have been paired with students who tested in the bottom quartile of their class on the English Language Assessments. The four Harlem schools currently participating in the program (P.S. 123, P.S. 125, P.S. 154 and C.S. 200) were selected in part because they operate in an area of the city that has one of the highest rates of "educational neglect" and child abuse.

"We're trying to interrupt the failure cycle," said TC's Dawn Arno, who directs the program, which was funded by Trustee Arthur Zankel. "When someone reads to you one-on-one, the feedback mechanism is there, immediately. You don't have to wait until you test the students in fourth grade to get that information."

The four schools have quickly taken to the program. P.S. 125 recently had a breakfast so that parents of children working with TC students could meet with the school's assigned Reading Buddies. Meanwhile, the teachers are delighted.

"How could it not be wonderful?" says Sarah Wunsdh, a teacher at P.S. 154. "I need all the help I can get!" And Zenola Cadlett, a parent coordinator at P.S. 123 who assists the Reading Buddies program there, says the top request from the school's teachers is simply, "Give us more!"

But the Reading Buddies' partnerships are about more than reading. Teachers College is giving the teachers at the four schools full access to the College's own library. The program is working with TC's Department of Psychology to place psychology students in the four schools, and with New York City's Agency for Child Services to bring in four graduate social work interns as well. The College also is planning a series of education seminars for parents of children working with the Reading Buddies.

Ultimately, the goal is to keep the children excited about reading, learning and the more distant future. But the Reading Buddies are finding themselves inspired by the experience, too.

"I started the first two weeks of Reading Buddies by sharing some of my culture from Alaska," says Tonio Verzone, a student in TC's International Education department who is the lead Reading Buddy at P.S. 125. "We read books about dog sledding, life in rural Alaska and wildlife of the Arctic. Afterward, I asked the kids what kinds of books they would like to read next. 'Alaska,' was their reply. So you really feel you're opening doors."

Or as Ndibo, who is from Kenya, puts it, "You end up being role models for the children. They look at where you've come from and where you've gone, and say, 'Maybe I can go to college one day, too.'".

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