Volunteers help local students become better readers

Sunday, June 3, 2012
The Read to Succeed volunteers pose May 3 for a photo at the Graces luncheon held to honor them. (ADAM VOGLER)

By Heather Short

More than 140 "good Samaritan" community members invest their personal time volunteering to read with students in local elementary schools with the Read to Succeed program.

The Read to Succeed program is a reading intervention program sponsored by United Way of Southeast Missouri GRACES Women's Council. The program uses volunteers to enhance reading skills of kindergarten and first-grade students with one-on-one sessions for 30 to 40 minutes four times per week. These volunteers provide care and concern, belief that the child can do well, and also celebrate the child's progress week by week. They focus on phonics, sounding out words and blending sounds. Consistency really does produce success.

Poor reading ability in early years has been identified as a significant barrier to our children being successful in school. It leads to behavior problems in the classroom later. Dropouts, in turn, are more likely to be unemployed, to earn low wages and to end up on welfare or in prison. Connecting struggling students with a caring adult is a strategy that works.

The Read to Succeed program began in the Cape Girardeau School District thanks to the commitment of Marsha Sander, a Jackson public schoolteacher. Marsha realized her fourth grade students were struggling with reading, and it was affecting their ability to learn. She looked for and found a reading intervention program that was research based and had a proven track record. She received training and implemented the program in her classroom to see if it worked. The results were amazing. The following year, the Jackson School District hired Marsha to implement the program district wide. Jackson has just completed its fourth year with their READ program and the data shows that the boost students received from the intervention the first year helps them continue to read proficiently at their appropriate grade level -- proof that this program is creating sustained changes in the youngest learners.

Marsha Sander
Jackson High School senior Brock Nanney follows along in a book read by second grade student Gavin White in the library of South Elementary School in Jackson. (Laura Simon ~ lsimon@semissourian.com)

Marsha was invited to a United Way GRACES Women's Council meeting as the council was looking for a focus and a way to make a difference in our community. The program struck a real chord with Bekki Cook who immediately began to learn more about the program. She orchestrated the launch of the program in Cape Girardeau at Blanchard Elementary which has now grown to a second school, Alma Schrader.

Close to 100 students are tutored with this program between both of the schools. Ninety-eight percent of the students tutored in the program reached the goal of being on or above reading level. Blanchard principal Barbara Kohlfeld and Alma Schrader principal Ruth Ann Orr have both said the program not only helps improve reading levels for students, but also increases their exposure to community members, which seems to benefit both.

"Sometimes, I think the volunteer benefits more than the student," said Nancy Jernigan, executive director of the United Way. "When we get the volunteers together, you should hear the stories they tell. The joy they receive from volunteering is evident."

The future looks bright for the Read to Succeed program. With the program results proving its worth, school administrators are ready to expand to more elementary schools this year. Starting in August, Jefferson and Franklin Elementary will welcome the program.

Bekki Cook and Monique Johnson, coordinator at Alma Schrader, plan to start filling volunteer slots over the summer, with an additional 150 volunteers needed for the expansion. We have the power to change our nation's future if we work together to address poor early grade reading skills.

The United Way of Southeast Missouri would like to give a very special thank you to all the community members who volunteer as good Samaritans for the Read to Succeed program. Without Bekki Cook, Monique Johnson and more than 140 volunteers this successful program would not be possible. Thank you to those who help make it possible.

Many more volunteers are needed in order to expand this year. If you are interested in becoming a Read to Succeed volunteer, please contact the United Way of Southeast Missouri's office at 334-9634.

Heather Short is the communication and marketing director for the United Way of Southeast Missouri.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: