Reading Partners program debuts at Cainhoy Elem/Middle School
Kendrick focuses intently on the words and pictures on the page, as volunteer Christine Messick reads aloud a story about a boy who puts together a wind machine in his village.
“Was he successful?” asked Messick, referring to the character in the book.
“Yes,” responded Kendrick, flashing a smile in her direction. “Because he made a windmill out of trash!”
And with that, Messick dives back into the story, her pupil eager to hear and see what happens next. Beside them in this well-appointed classroom at Cainhoy Elementary Middle School are other pairs of volunteers and students equally engrossed in their own tales. It’s all part of a new one-on-one initiative at CEMS called Reading Partners, a proven evidence-based program that pairs volunteer tutors with students whose reading skills are anywhere from one month to two and a half years below their grade level peers. The program debuted locally in Charleston County Schools in 2012. Thanks to a grant from the Daniel Island Community Fund, CEMS is the first facility in Berkeley County to implement it.
“I think we’ve got the perfect opportunity here for our students,” said CEMS Principal Anthony Dixon, who started at the school last year.
After seeing Reading Partners in action at his former school in Charleston County, Dixon knew about 50 of his identified students at Cainhoy could benefit from it as well.
“When I got to Cainhoy, we definitely off the bat saw that we had a good number of volunteers for a rural school, as well as partnerships,” he said. “But we did not necessarily have the resources to match the students with the needs, or with the interventions that they needed to improve.”
Many schools have “reading buddy” programs in which volunteers come in and read with students, but Reading Partners is different, explained the program’s South Carolina Executive Director Kecia Greenho.
“It’s pretty structured,” she said. “…We evaluate four times during the year and we continue to monitor and give feedback on students’ progress to principals and teachers.”
The other main difference is that each program has its own full-time site coordinator who is there during sessions to support the volunteer tutors and make sure resources are readily available. Each student also takes home a complimentary book each week. But it’s not just a book distribution, Greenho explained. Tutors talk with students the following week about the book and what they learned.
“They get that one-on-one attention,” she said. “And they just soak it up!”
Statistics provided by Reading Partners paint a clear picture of why the program is so desperately needed in schools with at-risk kids. In South Carolina, eight out of 10 fourth graders from low-income families cannot read at grade level. And those who can’t read proficiently by then are four times less likely to graduate on time. That can lead to a host of other problems in college, careers or life in general.
“If you’re not reading on grade level by third grade, there’s an 88 percent chance you won’t ever catch up,” said Kecia. “…Elementary school is where we have to get the work done. The gaps just keeps getting bigger and bigger after that.”
The students targeted by Reading Partners are not the ones with the greatest needs, or those “at the bottom of the list,” added Greenho. Those students receive special attention from school interventionists. The kids the Reading Partners program attempts to help are those who may otherwise go unnoticed. Currently, there are about 1000 students in Berkeley and Charleston Counties who would benefit from the program, she said.
“We’re talking about kids that are at risk of reading failure… And what happens is they slip through the cracks. We send them on to high school and you can imagine trying to do your best when you can’t read. It’s too bad because these are the kids that actually have the greatest chance of success…If we can get them into middle school reading proficiently, then we’re building up a work force.”
The Reading Partners curriculum focuses on three important areas: reading comprehension, fluency, and sight-word reading. Students, who meet with tutors twice a week, are assessed throughout their participation and utilize hand-picked materials based on their needs. So far, the data obtained by the Reading Partners program in Charleston shows promising results. After participating in the program, some 77 percent of target students increased their monthly rates of literacy learning, and 67 percent narrowed their literacy gaps with their peers who read at grade level.
“I think the piece that a lot of people don’t realize is what makes these kids at risk is the poverty situation they are in,” added Greenho. “So even if we do an incredible job getting them to great proficiency, they are still at risk because of the poverty….so we need to constantly support them, and Reading Partners is an easy program to do that because it’s using volunteers. It’s not a heavy lift, it’s very affordable for the school district. It’s only two days a week for these kids, but it’s just exactly what they need.”
But to make it all possible, the program needs volunteers - and lots of them. Currently, there are about 740 weekly Reading Partners volunteers working in schools throughout the local area. At CEMS, they now have about 20 students matched with volunteers, but close to 30 more are on a waiting list. With each student needing two weekly sessions, both Greenho and Dixon are hoping to recruit another 60 volunteers to make sure that all kids who can benefit from the program are able to take part.
“I feel like the volunteers may feel a little more rewarded because they can actually see the progress,” he said. “Because our volunteers stay with those kids…It’s been a good marriage.”
“It’s a strategic use of volunteers,” added Greenho. “We want to move them from a feeling good standpoint, to feeling good and doing good.”
When it comes to a student’s success, the power of a volunteer cannot be underestimated.
“When we’re able to meet the needs of students with the resources we have in the community, we will begin to see the needle move and the future impact on high school graduation rates and students who are college and career ready,” said Greenho.
Messick has been a Reading Partners tutor for over a year and is sold on its benefits.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “Especially with kindergartners. They’re like sponges and they are definitely excited to be here!”
She is also enjoying her sessions with Kendrick, who clearly shares her enthusiasm for the program.
“He’s amazing! The opportunity to spend a good 45 minutes one-on-one with him is wonderful. I get more out of it than I think he does!”
As the pair closed their recent session, Messick posed a question to her attentive pupil about the boy in the book.
“How do you think he’s feeling?” she asked. “Happy!” beamed Kendrick.
For more information on Reading Partners, or to inquire about becoming a volunteer, please visit www.readingpartners.org, email Kecia Greenho at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (508) 561-3537.
Cainhoy Elementary Middle School READING PARTNERS PROGRAM
Can you spare an hour or two per week? Consider volunteering for the CEMS Reading Partners Program, a structured initiative that pairs tutors in the community with students in need of reading help. The program is in need of 60 additional volunteers to match with students on a waiting list. To inquire about becoming a volunteer, please visit www.readingpartners.org, email Kecia Greenho at email@example.com, or call (508) 561-3537.