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Reading Corps celebrates first year in Bemidji

Rachael Pugleasa, a Reading Corps tutor at Horace May Elementary School, works with third-grader Maddie Sugar on daily enrichment activities. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — After graduating college last spring, Rachael Pugleasa, still a bit unsure of her future career path, decided to spend a year volunteering.

She was accepted into the Minnesota Reading Corps program and assigned to her childhood elementary school, Horace May, where she works one-on-one with up to 20 students a day.

"I never really knew it would be this awesome," said Pugleasa, sharing the story of one child who initially was one of the quietest students in her class. "She has all these friends now, and she’s the first one to raise her hand and answer questions in class.

"It’s so cool to see how we’re not only making an academic difference but socially and confidence-wise, as well. I think that’s been the most rewarding for me to see."

Pugleasa, now finishing her 11-month commitment to the Reading Corps, said the work has shaped her career goals.

"After this experience I am definitely going to go back to school and get my license to teach elementary school," she said. "I’m looking into maybe a master’s in education with a reading specialization or something along those lines."

Locally, the Reading Corps — an AmeriCorps program — pairs K-3 students with Reading Corps tutors, who work one-on-one with students to develop literacy skills.

"Up until third grade, you learn to read and after third grade, you read to learn," Pugleasa said. "That window of time is crucial."

The Bemidji Reading Corps program launched last fall in elementary schools throughout the Bemidji School District.

Statewide, there are more than 750 Reading Corps tutors in 500 Head Start centers, preschools, and elementary schools, including the Cass Lake-Bena School District, according to the website.

"It really is an amazing experience for all of the people involved," said Kari Gjerde, program director for greater Minnesota and north central Minnesota. "They really dedicate a year of their life to service."

‘Part of the school team’

Reading Corps tutors work with students who are just below reading proficiency for their grade level.

"Those kids that kind of fall between the cracks between those that really, really need help and the kids that are doing awesome," Pugleasa said.

Before entering a school, tutors undergo a weeklong "institute" to learn applicable strategies for helping students. Once in their schools, tutors, who receive a biweekly living allowance, work at least 40 hours a week.

"Horace May does an amazing job of making us feel like we’re part of the whole school team," Pugleasa said. "They have potlucks, school parties, staff meetings. We’re always included. We’ve built relationships with other teachers and that has been an awesome part of this experience as well."

Students are tested in the fall to determine who meets benchmark requirements. Testing is done again in the winter and spring, offering the chance for students to exit out of the program.

"In the future, as this program continues here in Bemidji, I’m excited to hear how it grows," said Pugleasa.

Pugleasa, a 2007 Bemidji High graduate, plans to wed next month and move with her fiance, Jacob Dreyer, graduating this spring with a master’s degree from South Dakota State University, as he finds work.

"These kids have captured my heart — that’s definitely what I’m going to miss the most," she said.