OGDEN — Five days a week, Jane Fowers arrives early for her job at Wasatch Elementary School’s lunchroom, where she helps prepare nutritious meals for the school’s 400 or so young students.
And one day a week, Fowers stays late, to help nourish young minds.
She walks from the school’s kitchen, about a hundred steps to the south, to an outdoor portable classroom where she tutors students who need to improve their reading skills. On any given shift, five or six volunteers work one on one for 30-minute sessions with students who struggle to read.
“It’s fun for me,” Fowers said. “I make little friends, and get to see them progress through the year. I get to know them, and they get skills and a boost to their confidence.”
It’s Fowers’ second year as a volunteer reading tutor, but her first year as a volunteer for the CooksBooks Initiative, a program that encourages school food-service workers to volunteer for after-lunch tutoring shifts. Irma Sustaita, also a cook at Wasatch Elementary, joined the CooksBooks program this year. Fowers began volunteering hours weekly when officials at her church put out a call for members to help in their schools.
Ken Crawford, Ogden School District director of support services, first heard about the “CooksBooks Initiative: A Recipe for Student Success” last summer while attending the National Child Nutrition Conference.
Crawford said the Ogden School District currently has 15 CooksBooks volunteers, himself included, tutoring at 10 district schools: George Washington High School and Wasatch, Dee, Odyssey, Madison, Lincoln, Shadow Valley, Taylor Canyon, Heritage and Bonneville elementary schools.
“We just started the program this year,” Crawford said. “We did training and were able to start working with kids in September. Most people put in an hour or two a week. We have had over 200 volunteer hours donated so far.”
The program is administered at Wasatch by the school’s AmeriCorps representative, Marisa Salazar. AmeriCorps is a United States government program that engages adults in community service aimed at meeting critical needs in communities.
“It gives the students a huge boost to see them not only serving lunch, but to see their volunteer work and their devotion to the school,” Salazar said of Fowers and Sustaita. “And it makes it more meaningful because their tutors are someone they know.”
The research-based AmeriCorps tutoring program works with students to improve their reading speed, accuracy, fluency and comprehension, Salazar said.
Besides the lunch cooks, Wasatch Elementary has about 28 other reading volunteers who work with students, after undergoing standard background checks and training on the specific tutoring curriculum used.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Salazar said of the work done by all her volunteers. “It’s a program that impacts lives, not only of the children but of the tutors. I had about 22 volunteers who returned from last year. I think that speaks for itself. And Wasatch Elementary is the most improved school in the district.
“The volunteers are changing lives in so many ways. When these students learn to read, they can try out for a part in the school play. They can do story problems in math. They can read a menu. They gain confidence, and they stop hiding in the background. There are probably students here who could catch up on their own, but there are some here that I don’t think would make it without this intervention.”
Wasatch Elementary School Principal Suzanne Bolar said all students who received tutoring improved their reading level significantly, and about half of the students tutored had tested as proficient in the state’s end-of-level criterion test. All had started last school year reading below grade level, Bolar said.
“And every single student who was tutored moved up at least half a grade level,” Bolar said. “In a school with classes as high as 31 children, it’s nice for students to have their own time to work with someone who is an advocate for them and shows an extra interest in them.”
Fowers said she has learned a lot about teaching.
“My second year is more comfortable,” she said. “Last year I felt very green. These are a lot of dedicated people who give their time to help our students.”
And Fowers, a cook at Wasatch Elementary for 14 years, also enjoys a little cheerleading as her tutoring students pass through her lunch line.
“The line moves pretty fast, but sometimes I ask them how they are doing or how their day is going, or I’ll tell them I will see them tomorrow. One of my students graduated and went to Mount Ogden (Junior High), but I still see my others, and it’s fun to say, ‘That’s my student.’ ”