As students head back to school, Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC) employees are helping kids struggling to read.
The sooner the outreach, the better. Studies show children reading below grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those reading at grade level. And 87% of reading-proficient first graders go on to read at their level in fourth grade and higher.
To help young kids stay on track, HCSC’s health plan in Illinois has partnered with Chicago Public Schools since the 2013-14 school year, while its Texas plan has worked with Dallas Independent School District since the 2014-15 school year. Both plans collaborate with the nonprofit Innovations for Learning to match mentors with struggling students who connect via the online literacy platform TutorMate to practice reading techniques.
Since the partnership started, 144 HCSC volunteers have spent nearly 825 hours with kids in 20 classrooms. Volunteer support became particularly impactful after schools shut down or went virtual during the pandemic, says Cary Zakon, national manager at Innovations for Learning.
Many students can use extra reading practice, Zakon says.
“I haven’t met an elementary school teacher who can read for 30 minutes once a week with all of their kids,” he says. “Teachers give us a little bit of their time and then TutorMate and our community partners give students countless hours of added reading support to lift up those who struggle the most.”
HCSC TutorMate volunteers say they appreciate the opportunity to help children in their communities become better readers and build confidence in themselves.
For 30 minutes each week Bridget Thomas, executive travel coordinator with the Illinois plan, connects online with a child in grade one or two to read books, play word games and develop reading skills. While hesitant at first, many kids open up toward the middle of the year as they gain confidence in their reading and themselves, she says.
“You hear it in their voices and when they’re trying to work something out,” says Thomas, a TutorMate participant since 2018. She is one of 15 Illinois employees who volunteered more than 83 hours with kids enrolled at Chicago’s Drake and Park Manor elementary schools during the 2021-22 school year.
“It’s really rewarding when you see the impact that you’re making and the improvements the child is making,” Thomas says.
Cedrina Falkner-Shaw, manager of HCSC's innovation lab in Dallas and a TutorMate volunteer since 2017, says the program increases students’ enjoyment from reading and builds a relationship with an adult.
“Many children don’t have the opportunity for parents to sit down and read with them,” she says. “Thirty minutes is not a lot of time, but it really makes an impact on them.”
The partnership is among the community-based organizations and programs focusing on youth development, mentoring and tutoring that HCSC supports through grants, sponsorships and employee volunteerism. So far this year, 349 employees in Illinois and Texas have volunteered more than 10,000 hours teaching, tutoring, coaching and mentoring with organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and local Girl Scouts groups.
“We live in a lot of the communities that we serve,” says Shelley Long, the Illinois plan’s community relations manager who established the partnership with Innovations for Learning. “It’s really great to see students advance and the value the program brings not only to them but the employee volunteers as well.”
Employee mentors who participated in the 2021-22 school year believe 80% of the tutoring sessions were successful, according to TutorMate survey results. And nearly 65% of teachers surveyed said their students moved up at least one reading level.
“A good corporate citizen always has their community in mind — not just the core business model but how they can lift up their communities,” Zakon says. “Nine years of support speaks volumes to how HCSC feels about the TutorMate experience.