When Michael Busk was an Honors English student at Notre Dame, he spent one of his summers teaching kids in South Bend how to read. Much to his dismay, he realized he did not have very good advice for them, but he never lost his love for working with younger students. A doctoral degree and a global pandemic later, Busk launched Next Step Learning, a tutoring program that partners with schools in South Bend.
Next Step focuses on retraining students’ response to language and filling in knowledge gaps, allowing them to leave the program as independent, fluent readers. The curriculum also targets visual memory, which is essential to building the foundation for effective reading and writing. When students know how to picture words and sounds in their head, they can decipher a new word based on the patterns they see. Busk emphasizes that Next Step’s pedagogy emphasizes skills rather than content—for example, tutors use the Socratic method during sessions. Instead of correcting a student, tutors ask them questions that push the student to figure out the answer for themselves. Once students decode those skills in reading and writing, Next Step guides them through the development of more advanced skills like spelling.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Busk noticed a need for virtual tutors at Next Step that civically-minded Notre Dame students could fill. Notre Dame students have since been trained every year and rotated through the calendar. Kennedy Gallaher ‘26, a Program of Liberal Studies and Pre-Health major, led sessions every Thursday afternoon on Zoom last semester. She was inspired to volunteer as someone who could not read fluently until she was seven.
“I know the struggles and I know how exciting it is to have that new world finally opened to you,” she says. “I’m nourishing not only a skill but a potential love of reading for these kids and it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”
Next Step’s leadership consists of eight people, so the team has always found Notre Dame volunteers invaluable. Before partnering with Next Step, South Bend area students had a nine to ten percent success rate on standardized tests. Now, almost every student has passed iRead, the benchmark for the third-grade reading level.
In the future, Busk hopes to partner with more South Bend schools, and to start a scholarship for students who cannot financially afford Next Step’s services.
“Our vision is to make South Bend the most literate city in the country,” he says.