Reading Pals

Reading Pals

An Early Literacy Initiative

BY ANITA WHITAKER

Years ago, a visit to a Pre-K classroom created the awareness for Carol Barnett that children weren’t entering school with the same skill sets. Since that day, she has campaigned for and supported early childhood literacy. But it wasn’t until she attended a United Way Women’s Leadership Council conference two years ago, that the idea for ReadingPals was formed.

ReadingPals seeks to increase the number of students who are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. The program will receive more than $3 million in 10 Florida communities over the next three years from Carol and Barney Barnett. Studies show that in Polk County, 43 percent of children don’t have the language skills they need to learn to read. The ReadingPals program will focus on developing those skills.

finger on book

ReadingPals, which began in 2012, engages volunteers who dedicate one hour a week to read to four children in kindergarten classroom at one of 14 elementary schools in Polk and Highlands Counties.

“Can there be a better way to spend an hour helping your community, [than] by helping a child?” asked Karyn Sikora Rubel, Director of the Women’s Leadership Council at the United Way of Central Florida.

“I think about this quote made by David Lawrence every day,” said Rubel. “Lawrence, Chair of the Children’s Movement of Florida, said, ‘The future greatness of America depends on all children becoming good readers.’ These children will become our talented, educated work force; helping our local businesses succeed in a very competitive world.”

The Children’s Movement of Florida is a partner in facilitating ReadingPals throughout the state.

Greta reading to kids

There isn’t a better way to help these students according to Deneece Dudeck, Principal at Alta Vista Elementary School in Haines City. She recently received the results of the Discovery testing of students who had been a part of the ReadingPals program for one year. Students in the program saw a five percent increase in reading test results compared to students who were not in the program. The scores are incredibly important, according to Dudeck; but the program also helps in another important area.

“The program helps to instill the love of reading,” said Dudeck. “And that is because of the ReadingPals program – someone taking the time to read to the children.”

“We are looking for BROAD COMMUNITY SUPPORT for this program – especially from city and county governments, along with civic leaders, business owners, bankers, lawyers, retirees and parents,” said Rubel. “We’d love to have more police officers and deputies. I’m serious!”

This year, the program goal is to enlist the assistance of at least 200 volunteers reading to 400 kindergartners. Volunteers do not need teaching experience and are asked to give an hour a week for the duration of the school year. Volunteers read from a 30 book curriculum, 15 fiction and 15 non-fiction, created by the Polk County School system. The students read the books and answer questions to encourage comprehension skills, while building vocabulary.

“We were very fortunate to have had a marvelous group of committed volunteer ReadingPals this year,” Rubel said. “I cannot say enough about their generosity; but no one is more grateful for their involvement than the children. You can see their faces light up the minute their ReadingPal enters the classroom.”

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The children aren’t the only ones on the receiving end. “The experience of volunteering with ReadingPals is extremely rewarding because you know you are impacting the children by enhancing their school experience by engaging them in reading, which translates into a lifetime of learning,” said Pauline Simmonds Brown, ReadingPals volunteer and Collection Area Director for One Blood, Inc.

“ReadingPals volunteers do much more than come for an hour to read with kindergarten students,” said Hope Bogel, Women’s Leadership Council Program Manager. “ReadingPals act as extensions of the classroom teacher, helping students to realize their potential and learn to read with confidence. It will help countless children succeed in school.” And, that’s been the Barnetts’ goal for years.

For more information or to volunteer, contact Hope Bogel at readingpals@uwcf.org.

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