300 volunteers tutor struggling young readers in SC

04/24/2013 12:00 AM

04/24/2013 12:23 AM

While state lawmakers consider a bill Wednesday that would hold back third-graders who are having trouble reading, a local nonprofit already is matching reading tutors to Midlands elementary students in an effort to improve their chances of academic success.

Called the Midlands Reading Consortium, the United Way of the Midlands program has recruited about 300 volunteers to provide weekly one-on-one reading help to students in kindergarten, and the first and second grades. The consortium’s volunteers are working with 400 children in 14 schools in three Midlands school districts.

The program is one example of how organizations outside of schools are playing a role in helping struggling students learn to read.

The importance of literacy also will be the subject before a Senate panel Wednesday. That committee is considering a proposal, modeled after a Florida reading program enacted more than a decade ago, that would require schools to hold back third graders who are reading below grade level, and require summer reading camps and other programs for struggling readers.

Similar bills have been introduced in the S.C. House.

Supporters say the legislation’s goal is to ensure students become independent readers by third grade – the year that educators say students shift from learning to read, to reading to learn.

That same goal is driving the United Way’s Midlands Reading Consortium, said Mac Bennett, president of United Way of the Midlands.

While the Senate proposal is not expected to pass until at least next year as legislators study it, the United Way program already is growing and posting promising results, said Kathy Olsen, the agency’s senior director of education.

Most of the schools served by the United Way program have a high poverty rate, indicated by the percentage of children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, Olsen said.

Volunteers train with an elementary school reading specialist, then work one-on-one with the same children for the school year, reading with them once a week for up to an hour.

End-of-year test scores found that 88 percent of kindergarten through second-grade students who took part in the program during the 2011-12 school year improved in their reading scores over the previous year, Olsen said.

Bennett said the agency would like to increase the reading program to up to 2,000 volunteers.

Carol Boudreaux, a retired elementary school reading specialist who trains the volunteers, said the program benefits struggling readers who may not have access to reading help in school because their cases are not severe enough to be singled out for extra reading instruction.

Also, some reading-specialist jobs have been cut from public schools, meaning fewer students have that extra help, she said.

Volunteers get a lot out of the program, too, said Brittany Dawson, a sophomore English and secondary education major at the University of South Carolina.

The kindergarten student who Dawson has been working with initially had trouble with the alphabet and writing his name.

“Last week, he had the best breakthrough,” Dawson said. “For the first time, he said, ‘Miss Brittany, can I read a book?’ ”

Dawson said she recently brought the kindergartener a book about Cocky that thrilled the budding Gamecocks fan.

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