Nathans (center) joins volunteer Peggy Kahn and Holmes Elementary fifth-grader Nevaeh in an online tutoring session where they’re reading about dolphins. She’s out to double the number of Family Learning Institute volunteers working with young readers in the Ypsilanti Community Schools.

“Ordinarily, second- and third-graders will be expected to read chapter books,” says Nathans, a reading specialist and former teacher who began tutoring students from Ypsi’s Erickson Elementary in 2014. Instead, “many are still reading books with one or two sentences on a page.”

Nathans is now the director of the Family Learning Institute’s Ypsilanti Community Schools program. She is eager to recruit more volunteers to help ensure students succeed academically. 

FLI, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit, provides free one-on-one tutoring to second- through fifth-grade students in Washtenaw County. Through individualized lesson plans, summer programs, and more, its volunteers work to close the achievement gap by focusing on reading. 

Nathans first became involved with an FLI program for Erickson Elementary students. Located at Grace Fellowship Church, it was spearheaded by Grace pastor Willie Powell and Kathy Wyatt, executive assistant to Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton. The program struggled with getting enough tutors and funding, but was revitalized in 2019, when Wyatt secured funding from University Bank. It moved to the school with Nathans at the helm. 

The program moved online when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Currently, thirty tutors work with thirty-six second- through fifth-graders—still virtually for now, although they plan to add an in-person option in the fall—and Nathans has seen the impact firsthand. 

“We’re observing kids who didn’t really want to read being willing to try and actually being successful and being interested in the books,” she says. And regularly interacting with a caring older adult provides a “wonderful consistency. The relationships that they’re developing with the tutors are just very rewarding.”

FLI executive director Sharine Buddin says those relationships are key, because students can be reluctant to admit they need help. When they work with a tutor consistently and build a trusting relationship, she says, they’re willing to “let that particular volunteer know what they don’t know and allow them to teach them what they don’t know—which is sometimes not a comfortable thing for kids when they are falling behind with their learning.”

Wyatt explains that students who fall behind on their reading also begin to struggle in all areas. She says that there is compelling data showing the link between poverty and the challenges that arise in building reading skills. 

A survey last year found that 96 percent of parents whose students were part of the Erickson program believed their child’s reading had moderately or substantially improved—and an equal number would highly recommend the program to other parents. But none of it can happen without volunteers. 

Terri Ginsburg started tutoring in 2018 after she retired from her job as a director of education at Temple Beth Emeth. “I was aware of the achievement gap in our schools and felt that the one-on-one tutoring with students who were at least two years behind in reading provided by the Family Learning Institute was an effective way to make a difference,” she says. No experience is required. FLI trains tutors to teach reading using phonics, associating sounds with letters, sight words, recognizing word parts, and context. Ginsburg now tutors two students once a week. 

“I find the tutoring very satisfying because the students make tangible progress, even in the short time that we spend with them,” she says. “I can see their confidence grow as their reading skills improve.”

Wyatt explains that many parents and caregivers don’t have the time to engage in reading or provide enrichment activities. The tutoring program tries to “level the playing field and make sure that all our kids have opportunities to have a successful and productive life.”

Nathans is hoping to double the number of tutors within the next year. She’s looking for people who are “great listeners, very patient, respectful, and responsive to the children.” She can be reached at cfnathans@ameritech.net or via familylearninginstitute.org.