Changing lives with reading, math tutors

By Don Heinzman

Guest Columnist

The Minnesota Reading Corps and Math Corps need 2,000 full- and part-time tutors to meet their goals of helping all Minnesota children become proficient readers by the end of third grade and proficient math students by the end of eighth grade.

Bloomington’s Robert Mowatt is one of 1,700 tutors who enabled 30,000 struggling readers and math students to improve their skills in Minnesota last year.

Mowatt has overcome an amazing personal struggle to become a tutor. After 40-plus years of a corrections career, he retired, only to suffer a stroke six years ago, losing his ability to read.

“The only word I could read was ‘the,’” he said.

After nine months of rehabilitation, his reading ability returned and he realized more than ever the importance of reading.

He heard about Minnesota Reading Corps and its success. He applied, went through the interview, passed the background check and was assigned to Hillcrest Elementary School in Bloomington, where he will start his fourth year of tutoring students in kindergarten through third grade.

Aided by a “wonderful” internal coach, Cecelia Welch, and the support of two master coaches, he has helped 50 students. Of that number, more than half have reached their goal of reading at grade level and the rest have all made remarkable progress.

This is significant because, according to the Minnesota Reading Corps, 1 in 3 students in Minnesota are not reading up to grade level after third grade.

The Reading Corps requires that Mowatt meet 20 minutes a day with each student, applying the corps’ evidenced-based literacy interventions that help students to learn letter sounds, words, sentences and reading comprehension. He records daily progress and weekly test results in a computer management system.

Monthly, he meets with coach Welch and master coach Julie Johnson, where progress of each student is monitored and adjustments made.

As a part-time tutor, he is required to serve for 11 months and tutor for a minimum of 20 hours a week or perform community service for a total of 920 hours. In return, the corps provides a modest living allowance of $500 a month net in bimonthly payments, plus an educational benefit of $2,887 that can be used for the education of his children and grandchildren. He has used the benefit to support his own children’s education.

Full-time tutors must put in 1,720 hours of tutoring and community service for which they earn the bimonthly living allowance and an educational benefit of up to $5,775. Full-time tutors also are eligible for health insurance.

The joy for Mowatt comes in seeing his students surprise even themselves as they give birth to new sounds, words and sentences. He recalls how one student could not read at all and after six months, he stopped in the middle of a sentence, looked at Mowatt and said, “You really did teach me to read, Bob.” He added, “Now I am reading every night.”

Reading standards for these students are challenging: 48 sounds a minute for kindergarteners, 62 words per minute for first-graders, 116 words per minute for second-graders and 135 words per minute for third-graders.

Mowatt wants you to consider joining the Minnesota Reading Corps or Minnesota Math Corps, which are programs of AmeriCorps. This fall the Reading Corps will need 1,700 tutors and the Math Corps will need 300 tutors to teach 35,000 students at 900 sites in Minnesota.

“It is so rewarding. You know you are helping kids, you are making a difference, and every student is so appreciative,” he said. “It keeps you alert, it challenges you, it doesn’t overwhelm you, and there is that education award.

“The staff at Hillcrest is so grateful, and you feel a part of the school team because we can do what teachers don’t have the time (for), allowing them more time with their classes.”

On a personal note, I served as a part-time tutor at Rahn Elementary School in Eagan and can attest to the effectiveness of the program and the joy of seeing students learn. I second all that Mowatt says about the program.

To learn more and to apply for a position, go to

You and your students will be happy you applied.


Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers.