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National Service Provides Key to Nation's Toughest Issues

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As AmeriCorps turns 20 and transitions to "adulthood," it's exhilarating to witness how its people power combined with evidence-based practices can, in fact, be a tool to solve unsolved problems.

ServeMinnesota is demonstrating this potential through its breakthrough program: Minnesota Reading Corps. It began in 2003, serving just 250 children. Today, it is one of the largest AmeriCorps programs in the country, serving 30,000 children annually - large enough to move the needle on improving 3rd grade reading proficiency on a significant scale.

The success of Minnesota Reading Corps is the result of a strategic, disciplined and thoughtful approach to maximizing AmeriCorps national service. Designed in partnership with policymakers, educators and researchers, rigorously trained AmeriCorps members work with high-need children from age three to grade three in preschool and elementary school settings.

This model fixes a critical link in literacy acquisition. For teachers, regularly delivering individualized, one-on-one instruction is difficult, if not impossible. Because Reading Corps tutors are focused solely on providing reading support, they can target instruction and dedicate the time needed for each child. They commit to a year or more of service and use data and research-based interventions to ensure their efforts produce the desired results - helping children achieve grade-level reading proficiency.

As Jeffrey Bradach stated (June 13, 2013, Huff Post), we must invest in evidence-based programs. This is a credo that AmeriCorps is uniquely positioned to exemplify. AmeriCorps provides a "flexible workforce" that can align with the latest research and consequently close the gap between research and practice.

Reading Corps preschoolers scored significantly higher in kindergarten readiness measures than children in matched comparison groups. Elementary school participants demonstrate more than a year's worth of progress and 80 percent of third graders, who successfully completed the program, passed their state reading exams. This matches the pass rate for all Minnesota children, a remarkable achievement for children on a trajectory to failure. Further, a 2012 study showed that Reading Corps participants are three times less likely to receive a special education referral, resulting in significant cost savings. This proven model is a permanent part of Minnesota's literacy strategy and the University of Chicago (2013) assessed the Reading Corps model as "highly replicable."

By attracting philanthropic partners like Target and United Way, and legislative champions, we are advancing the unprecedented convergence of thought leadership, policy and philanthropy focused on third grade reading, allowing us to replicate the model in six states and Washington D.C. As noted by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad: "Reading Corps' proven results and cost-effective model make this the type of program that should be expanded to other states."

What sets it apart? The combination of passionate AmeriCorps members with the science of how children learn. Research told us that a focus on basic literacy skills, data-driven instruction, and trained tutors, who build trust and confidence with their students, were key to success. The program is not just labor-intensive, it is love-intensive. It requires a large number of people who are willing to invest a year or two of their lives and care passionately about helping children succeed. Teachers, administrators and parents tell us that if not for Minnesota Reading Corps, their students would not be ready for the world of learning.

The 1,100 Minnesota Reading Corps tutors include recent college grads who as a result of their AmeriCorps experience are inspired to become professional educators. Some tutors are retired, some are stay-at-home parents, some are career changers - all with a desire to make their communities better places to live.

Meet Bernard who didn't learn how to read until the 8th grade. He served with Minnesota Reading Corps to be sure other children could turn their stumbling block into a building block.

Meet Elissa, a recent college graduate, who spent one week in a school and was convinced she didn't want to be a teacher, because they worked amazingly hard. Two years as a Reading Corps tutor changed her mind and now she is pursuing her teaching license.

Meet Howard, a 65-year old businessman, who suffered a heart attack and was not allowed to return to his stressful job. He joined Reading Corps and his health improved dramatically. As he puts it, he joined to "save the kids", but it turns out, they saved him.

Meet Nichole, a stay-at-home mom whose son received services from Minnesota Reading Corps. When she saw the difference it made for him, she knew she had to serve other students just like him.

While Reading Corps is our largest program that illustrates the power of combining evidence-based approaches with service, we are in the process of applying this model to address all gateways students have to navigate from birth to career. By harnessing the power of national service, we are laying the groundwork for America's prosperity through successful students and dedicated community members.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the AmeriCorps legislation on September 20th. The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about the Franklin Project, click here.