Georgetown University’s D.C. Reads program will celebrate 20 years of tutoring, mentoring and advocating for education in Washington, D.C.’s most underprivileged school districts Oct. 20.

The university’s Center for Social Justice launched the program in 1997 in response to Congress’s passing of the America Reads Challenge Act, a law intended to improve literacy in elementary schools across the country and engage college students in volunteer and federal work-study programs, that same year. Local chapters on college campuses formed in response.

The Georgetown chapter works with elementary school students in Ward 7 schools who are one month to 2.5 years behind their peers in their literacy skills.

According to the 2010 census, the median annual income in Ward 7 was of $58,068 — almost four times less than the $215,530 of Ward 2, where Georgetown is located.

“Our experience in D.C. is not the typical experience,” D.C. Reads Coordinator Genevieve Pool (SFS ’19) said.

96 percent of Ward 7’s residents are black, a demographic group disproportionately disadvantaged in education access. A 2014 study by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that school disciplinary policies disproportionately affect black students, as they are three times more likely to be arrested than white students. Black students represent 31 percent of school-related arrests despite being only one-sixth of the public school population.

The D.C. Reads program, through which Georgetown students tutor elementary school students in reading, is celebrating its 20-year anniversary with community members from its eight teaching sites.

The study noted that being punished at school resulted in an increased likelihood of future incarceration. Students suspended or expelled from school for a discretionary violation are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year.

D.C. Reads Program Director Sabrina Sifuentes said that helping at-risk students early in their education can prevent them from these hazards.

“Education is the equalizer, and I knew I needed to work in these specific communities in these specific schools. I really see it is as a privilege that our students allow us to get to know them and help them through this journey,” Sifuentes said.

D.C. Reads tutors’ personalized attention provides a change of pace to Ward 7 students who typically learn in overcrowded and understaffed classrooms.

“Students are paired with a tutor one on one for the entire semester, which is really nice because they get attached and get to see that role model in college,” Pool said.

Georgetown students commit to volunteering twice a week for the program at one of the eight tutoring sites in Ward 7, developing a strong relationship with their tutee. Many tutors appreciate the bonds they form with their tutees.

“My favorite part was definitely developing a relationship with my mentee because it is easy to go in with a savior complex and just not make any real connections, but the fact that we had the same child to mentor every week allowed me to actually get to know them,” former D.C. Reads Tutor Natalia Campos Vargas (SFS ’19) said.

Throughout its two-decade long existence, the D.C. Reads program has undergone changes. A few years ago, tutors were able to design lesson plans for their tutees as they saw fit. Today, the program has moved to a more structured system which, Sifuentes said, allowed the program to better gauge the tutees’ academic progress.

“The biggest success we can have is when we no longer need to work with a student. As much as that can be painful, letting them go when they are on level allows us to work with other students who need help,” Sifuentes said.

The twentieth anniversary celebration, which caps off the CSJ’s Education Week, will be held in the Arrupe multipurpose room. The celebration will host community members from each of the eight teaching sites in Ward 7, as well as Georgetown alumni, former tutees and principals of schools affiliated with the program.

Georgetown students are welcome to attend the event to learn more about becoming involved with the program.

“It’s a great way of giving back to the D.C. community, which can be easily ignored from inside the front gates,” Campos said.

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