Spotlight on Janet Parker

A Jewish Coalition for Literacy Lead Tutor

“Part of what being Jewish means is to be involved – in the community, in the world, in the lives of those who may need us.”

The first time I met Janet Parker was at the Jewish Coalition for Literacy’s annual Chanukah party. In between getting to know tutors and celebrating my very first Chanukah, as the smell of homemade latkes and applesauce wafted in the room, I finally put a face to name. The woman I had gotten to know so well on the phone during the first weeks of my new job as an AmeriCorps VISTA Program Associate with JCL approached me with her warm smile and gave me a giant hug. It was as if I had known her for years. Janet is amazing, truly one of JCL’s exemplary lead tutors.

JCL lead tutors are crucial to the success of the program, providing volunteers with ongoing on-the-ground support. A lead tutor, according to Janet, acts “as a link” between people. “Sometimes tutors are uncomfortable communicating directly to the teacher, principal, or other school staff,” she explains. “They act as the liaison and make sure that everybody has the best experience possible.”

Janet first got involved with JCL in 1999 because of her sense of what it means to be Jewish. Her first placement was at Guadalupe Elementary School, located in San Francisco’s Crocker Amazon neighborhood. Since then, Janet has expanded her involvement with JCL to include Tenderloin Community School as well, serving not only as the lead tutor at both schools, but actively participating in Literacy Nights and other events and generally spreading the word about the impact of tutoring. “It’s really a blessing having her. She goes above and beyond,” says teacher Leslie Jer, who has worked closely with Janet for the past four years.

Janet Parker reads to 1st grade students at Guadalupe Elementary School in San Francisco

“What I love to do more than anything in the universe is read to kids and with kids. It’s my greatest joy” – Janet Parker

Being a JCL volunteer does come with its set of challenges, especially because the students often have such difficult home lives, explains Janet. “Once I was reading a book about a worrier, and then I asked the kids, ‘What are some of the things that you guys worry about?’ And you think you’re going to get answers like, ‘Getting an A on a spelling test or something similar.’” Instead, says Parker, it’s about, “‘Is my daddy going to get deported?’ Another little girl said her cousin was shot trying to cross the Mexican border. Just scary things beyond what you would hope a little third grader would be dealing with.” Although none of these issues has to do with reading, “you have to understand these are the lives these children lead.”

Learning to make reading fun for the students can be difficult but extremely rewarding.

“The first step in learning to read is believing that it’s possible,” says Janet. Initially, many students are uncomfortable and insecure about it. One of Janet’s strategies is to choose books of plays for the children to read and act out. Being a former theatrical actor, performing stories comes naturally to her. “Talk about getting the meaning of stories and comprehension – there is no greater and more fun way to do that than by taking on the personas of the characters in books,” she explains. Janet has worked with many different students, but there is one particular student who has shown incredible improvement. “At first, this student would look at the cast of characters and always pick those with only one line, and then would mumble the words in that line. But after a while she would choose roles with the most lines, and would just go for it and wasn’t inhibited about not knowing the words anymore. It was so freeing. It was just so much fun!”

What advice does Janet give to someone wanting to become a tutor or even a lead tutor with JCL? “Go online, or talk to me. I always make myself available. And go to one of the training sessions. A lot of times people are apprehensive, but you’re not committing to anything by checking it out, and more often than not, people pursue it.”

The Jewish Coalition for Literacy places volunteer reading tutors in more than 50 high poverty public elementary and after-school programs in San Francisco, the Peninsula and the East Bay. Join JCL as a volunteer reading tutor by signing up for a free tutor training workshop at, or call 415.369.9978 X100. JCL is funded in part by a grant from the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.


November 07, 2014


Alexsandra Buckner