'Reading Buddies' Program Connects Twin Cities College and Charter Students

Brady Fossenbell’s small revolution at a Minneapolis charter school.


Two years ago, Brady Fossenbell began teaching English to fifth, sixth, and seventh graders at Banaadir Academy, a charter school serving primarily immigrants and refugees. He is earning his master’s degree in English as a second language, and prior to Banaadir he taught English and college prep in Vietnam. A Reading Buddy program he started with the help of his Banaadir principal using college-student volunteers has resulted in improvements in his students’ skills and strengthened relationships between students, teachers, and parents.

“The school was in a tough place, and I was completely overwhelmed by the general chaos and violence. On my first day, I saw a girl pull another girl’s hijab over her face and punch her seven, eight times. It wasn’t uncommon to see a kid pick up a desk and throw it across the room. I walked into rooms to see paper floating like snow and the teacher hiding. I heard a substitute on the phone saying, ‘I’m done. I’ve been hit in the head with a shoe and a book. I’m not coming back here.’ Teachers were upset, students were upset, parents were upset.”

“I was lucky to connect with some of the kids and that made me want to stick it out. I made the decision to stay and do something. I called the district to ask for social workers, nurses, security guards. They said there was nothing to spare. Realizing how many colleges there are in the area, I thought if I could just tap into that demographic, it would be a win-win situation.”

“That’s when we [introduced] the Reading Buddy model. The Reading Buddies work with literate students and act as active listeners, asking comprehension-related questions and helping with unfamiliar words. With students who can’t read, the Reading Buddies read to them. Now that the program has caught on, students come in asking for sessions with Reading Buddies. And, qualitatively, we’re seeing an increase in comprehension, critical thinking, and engagement.”

“In the first semester, we had 30 volunteers from the U of M. Then we started getting them from Metro State and Augsburg, and then it snowballed. It got to the point where we almost had too many.”

“The volunteers have had a ripple effect no one saw coming. Having them here helped to change the school dynamic. Tapping into Somali student teachers from the community has been huge, too. They understand the language and culture, and can translate and contextualize things the students say and do for the other teachers. Many of the Somali teachers doing their practicum hours with us have volunteered to stay after they stopped receiving credit.”

“The volunteer program is only part of the change, and we’re not where we want to be yet, but it feels like a school now. The principal and assistant principals are in the classrooms coaching teachers instead of just handling discipline. I’m proud of the system and how the kids and staff are responding. I know most of the kids and I’m pulling for them — they’re great kids.”