Word perfect: Jewish reading program celebrates 10 years

One day, while reading to a San Mateo second-grader, tutor Bettye Roos came across a passage about a trundle bed. She asked the boy if he knew what that was.

“I said, ‘What kind of bed do you have?’ “ recalls Roos, “and he said, ‘I don’t have a bed. I sleep on the floor.’ It breaks your heart.”

Bettye Roos

She didn’t waste much time feeling sad. Instead, the former San Francisco State University administrator kept right on going — and for 10 years has faithfully volunteered with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, helping kids attain the most critical learning skill of all: the ability to read.

“I walk in the room and their faces light up,” says the San Mateo resident. “It’s exciting to me. They run quickly and get a book to read, and they’re very interested in learning.”

Roos, 82, is one of 41 JCL tutors to be honored with a Peter F. Sloss Volunteer Appreciation Award at JCL’s 10th anniversary celebration. The fundraising event takes place Sept. 20 at the JCC of San Francisco. The theater company Word for Word will provide entertainment.

The honorees are all longtime JCL volunteers, with most going back to the organization’s founding. Director Roberta Rothman credits them and scores of other volunteers over the years for helping 12,000 kids in grades K-3 improve their reading skills.

Rothman says the weekly one-on-one tutoring sessions have elicited dramatic results. According to her, 95 percent of JCL-tutored students showed improvement in comprehension, 97 percent were more motivated to read aloud, and 92 percent showed growth in language skills.

“Teachers tell us that the children are progressing,” Rothman says. “They progress at least two reading levels within a grade, and some [teachers] tell me it’s two to three grade levels.”

Michael Samson, a volunteer for 10 years, reads to students at Ulloa School in San Francisco during Literacy Night.

This is all the more remarkable considering many of the students come from homes in which English is not the primary language. JCL sends volunteers across San Francisco, the East Bay and the Peninsula, but always “where the need is,” as Rothman puts it: in schools with a majority of students from lower socioeconomic means.

After a 2 1/2-hour training session, volunteers are assigned to a classroom in a local school, where they work closely with teachers and students. This usually involves one-on-one sessions, either reading to children or having them read aloud.

Some volunteers have a measure of independence, while others follow classroom curriculum. Sometimes they read to groups. Michael Samson, another 10-year JCL volunteer, recently read to children in the library at Ulloa School. The occasion was a special Literacy Night that the school had planned for parents and children.

Rothman has been at JCL’s helm for the last five years. The program was the brainchild of writer-editor Leonard Fein, who started the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy in his hometown of Boston back in 1997.

The idea caught on across the country, including in the Bay Area, where Phyllis Cook, then executive director of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, helped get JCL off the ground locally.

Today JCL is a financially self-sufficient project of JCRC, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and the Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay.

JCL not only proved it gave kids a leg up, it also showed the broader community that Jews care. “In some cases we’re dealing with communities, children and parents who may never have interacted with a Jewish person before,” Rothman adds. “So it reflects very positively on the Jewish community.”

Naturally, Rothman believes in the JCL mission. It’s about much more than helping 8-year-olds get through “The Cat in the Hat.”

“A civil democratic society needs an educated electorate,” she says. “By working with children and helping them succeed, they will become better members of society. As we become more technologically advanced, if you’re going to succeed, you need to be able to read by the end of third grade.”

Roos knows the importance of motivating kids to read. But she is the first to admit that JCL volunteers often get as much or more out of the experience as their students.

She pulls out some of the letters she has received from grateful students. Quoting one, Roos reads, “Thanks for everything you done for me. You helped me read brighter. You turned dark into light.”

The 10th anniversary celebration for the Jewish Coalition for Literacy takes place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $100. Information: (415) 977-7430 ext. 102 or www.jclread.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.