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Julie Chan and JoAnn Carter-Wells

Julie Chan and JoAnn Carter-Wells work together at the Community Learning and Literacy Center.

Community Learning and Literacy Center Pilots Tutoring Program for Foster Care Children

Goal Is to Turn Struggling Readers Into Successful Readers

May 13, 2008

By Debra Cano Ramos

When Cal State Fullerton alumna and reading teacher Diana Lester learned about a new university tutoring pilot program to help improve the literacy skills of foster care children, she jumped at the opportunity to make a difference.

"There is nothing more important than to improve reading skills in children," said Lester, who teaches ninth grade at Costa Mesa's Estancia High School. "Reading successfully opens doors to everything imaginable and even those things that we have never yet thought about. It is a building block for being a lifelong learner."

Lester is among a dozen teachers who are part of a pilot after-school tutoring program to provide literacy and reading instruction to foster care students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

Cal State Fullerton's Community Learning and Literacy Center and Orange County's Social Services Agency have partnered on the program with the goal of turning struggling readers into successful readers, said JoAnn Carter-Wells, professor of reading and director of the Community Learning and Literacy Center, based at the university's Irvine campus.

Under a $130,000 contract from the county's Social Services Agency, the learning and literacy center provides literacy services to K-12 foster children. The Social Services Agency refers students to the program at no cost to the school district or the child's foster care family.

The program is currently serving 20 students in foster care and group home settings who are two or more years below their grade-level peers in reading, explained Julie Chan, project director for the tutoring program.

Chan, who recently retired as Newport-Mesa Unified School District's literacy director and also served as the reading/language arts coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education, was selected to oversee the one-on-one pilot tutoring program. She also teaches master's level courses in reading at Cal State Fullerton.

A program like this is greatly needed for several reasons, Chan noted.

"For these children in foster care, often there are gaps in their learning because of frequent moves," Chan observed. "Our goal is to improve their reading and writing skills, get them closer to grade level and close those achievement gaps."

Tutors in the program are experienced classroom teachers in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District who also are graduates of Cal State Fullerton's graduate program in education with an emphasis in reading, Chan said. Teachers tutor in their own classrooms after school, and as the program director, Chan oversees the literacy tutoring.

Through the program students receive personalized assistance with expert teachers who can give them the diagnostic assessments and targeted instruction they need to become literate and successful in school, Chan said.

For tutors like Lester, she added that reading specialists are trained to design intervention strategies for struggling readers to improve areas of weakness and build on areas of strength.

"But perhaps more importantly, tutors build children's confidence and make reading fun. Spending quality time with an adult who is genuinely interested in the child can make a huge difference. There is nothing more satisfying than to see a child become ‘turned on' to reading," Lester said.

Lester has been working with a student who will soon turn 18 and become emancipated. "My student is very agreeable and seems to enjoy all of the activities we have done. She seems to be excited to be there and will try anything. She loves poetry and mysteries. My job is to make her as ready as I can to be able to enter the adult world," Lester said.

Ultimately, the hope is that schools, school districts and others replicate this program, Carter-Wells said.

"We're hoping that this pilot program will serve as an innovative model for partnerships among child and family social services agencies, school districts and university practitioners and researchers," she added. "Nothing like this has been done in the county and this program has the potential to be replicated elsewhere."

The Community Learning and Literacy Center is currently seeking funding sources to continue the program next fall. Included in the program are workshops for teacher-tutors and caregivers on both literacy and working with children under stress, Carter-Wells said.

For more information, contact Julie Chan, 949-936-1694 or

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