While their peers are out on the playground for lunchtime recess, more than a dozen students at Cloverland Elementary School are meeting, by choice, with adults to read books.
Community volunteer Betsy Stowe, a parent who enjoyed reading with her children when they were young, brought to life a new program at Cloverland that she hopes will grow to other schools.
Initially, Stowe, an empty-nester, felt that she could commit herself to meeting once a week for reading together with a child at one of the schools.
“I loved reading with young kids,” she said. “… I learned from a reading specialist that reading aloud was the best way to help a child become good at reading himself.”
Stowe then saw a TV news report about a program called “Everybody Wins! DC,” a children’s literacy program where a reading mentor is paired with a child for a one-on-one reading session during lunchtime. Stowe said she thought such a program could work in Oakdale.
She reached out to the school district office and from there, other key people were contacted. Magnolia teacher-in-charge and district academic coach Kathy Jenkins then came into the picture and Cloverland expressed interest in the program.
The Student Mentor Arranged Reading Time (SMART) Club was born. Second, fifth, and sixth grade students meet with the same community volunteer to read together during their lunchtime. Jenkins coordinates the program with Stowe.
“We have two groups of community volunteers that mentor and read with Cloverland students weekly,” Jenkins said.
Currently, there are 15 adults serving as reading mentors to 15 children in Cloverland’s SMART Club. Eight second graders meet together on Tuesdays at lunchtime with their mentors and the fifth and sixth grade students meet on Wednesdays.
“The kids really enjoy it,” said Cloverland Elementary School Principal Stacey Aprile. “They look forward to that special time with an adult.”
The older students usually bring in chapter books that they’re currently reading and the primary students choose from a selection of library books. Aprile said that students are selected for the SMART Club with teacher input.
“It’s one-on-one oral reading practice that students may not always receive, especially in the upper grades,” she added.
Stowe said that with all the budget cuts that schools are facing, she felt she had something to offer and she called on a few of her friends and talked to a women’s club in Oakdale to help. She said she asks people if they eat lunch in Oakdale, and if they say they do, she asks if they can take that time once a week to meet with a child to read at lunch.
“Can I as an individual, or friends and I, can we do something to make a difference in the lives of kids?” Stowe asked. “…And then, what if it could grow? If one can make a difference, how about a dozen, how about 50?”
Stowe added that her children went through Oakdale schools and she’s happy with their education. She noted that Oakdale has a high-quality group of individuals who teach Oakdale’s children. She added, however, that one teacher with 25 or 30 children in a classroom can only do so much, and that every child learns best one-on-one.
“Children who may have slipped through cracks whether academically or relationally, now have an adult who cares where they’re at at lunchtime,” Stowe said.
She added that friendships are fostered and that the students express an enthusiasm for reading. The kids can have a friendship with a safe, caring adult and find enjoyment in books and discover they can read when some thought they couldn’t. Stowe also said the club is gratifying for the adults, too.
She reported that they kept the program small this year to figure out how it would work and how people would maintain their commitment through the school year. Stowe added that it’s important for anyone who wants to volunteer to be a reading mentor also be committed to meeting weekly for the school year because it’s about mentoring and the relationship matters. She also encourages adults who aren’t sure if they’re available all the time to have a backup person to take their place for when they can’t be there.
The program discourages gift giving, the exchange of personal information, and contact outside of the classroom. A school employee is always present during the reading sessions and the mentor-student pairs never read alone.
According to the “Everybody Wins! DC” website, students benefit from such a program because their reading skills and self-esteem improve. It showed that the Department of Education sponsored a study in 1998-1999 on the effectiveness of the Everybody Wins! DC lunchtime reading program and found that it had “notable benefits,” especially for the primary grades – those who struggled most with reading. It showed that there was a decrease in the number of students reading below grade level from 61 percent to 34 percent, with most students achieving grade-level competency.
“The thought of being able to open up a child’s world… It’s good,” Stowe said. “It’s a good thing to foster intellectual curiosity.”
The motto for the SMART Club is “One Mentor, One Child, One Book At A Time.” For more information or if you are interested in being a reading volunteer contact Jenkins at Magnolia at 847-3056 or call Stowe at (209) 404-2298.