“If you can start out young people in a positive way, you will set them on a path of a lifelong love of reading and learning.” -Barb Nichols, Lead to Read volunteer
At midday on any given Wednesday at King Elementary in Kansas City the parking lot begins to fill. But the people arriving at the school are not children. These people, ranging in age from 25-70, are readers with Lead to Read KC, and they are coming to school not to learn, but to read with students.
Waiting inside is Lead to Read KC director of reader development, Pauly Hart, ready to equip each volunteer with a brief set of instructions. Among the volunteers are members from Hart’s Leawood book club, retirees, and professionals from nearby businesses, all joining a metro-wide effort to improve literacy.
People from across the metro are volunteering with Lead to Read KC once a week in urban schools. Richard Head, who works at a nearby consulting firm, learned about the opportunity on KCPT and decided to volunteer. Casey Martin, an attorney with Husch Blackwell, volunteers in hopes of improving our urban schools. Quentin Savwoir, an aide to Mayor Sly James, is a reader with a special connection to these kids; he attended nearby Kansas City Middle School of the Arts. And as this group reads with first graders, 24 CBIZ employees are upstairs reading with second graders. Ideally, Lead to Read volunteers work or live within 15 minutes of the school and commit to one lunch hour a week. This allows working people to leave their offices, get to a nearby school and return within the hour.
“This small time commitment can pay big dividends for struggling children,” says Hart. The investment of individualized attention is not lost on the students. “When you show up, you will see the children are so happy. They know in their hearts that someone is taking time out of their day to be with them, to sit with them, to read to them,” adds Hart.
Hart’s group heads down the quiet hall and into a classroom of 24 children, all dressed in school uniforms. Many of the students smiling up at the adults are not reading on grade level. City-wide, third grade reading proficiency has improved from 33 percent in 2011, to 49 percent last year, according to a recent statement from Mayor James. While still too low, the improvements come as a result of programs such as Lead to Read KC.
In the classroom, adults connect with student reading partners at desks, on the floor or in a cozy corner reading nook. “At first, it seems a little noisy, but one-on-one—it just seems to work!” says Hart.
Educators know that children need to learn the basics by third grade, “Through third grade, children are learning to read. After that, they are reading to learn,” says Hart. “If they miss that third grade reading benchmark, they are more likely to struggle through school,” she adds.
Barb Nichols, a book group member, reads with Ja’Naih. “She is very friendly and talkative, and enjoys sharing stories about her life, family and pets. We are sometimes silly together. She enjoys reading and knows she is a smart young girl.”
Nichols is a long-time supporter of literacy. At her sons’ school, she ran the Book Fair, chaired Battle of Books and volunteers at the public library. “I feel reading is the gateway to all knowledge, and if you can start out young people in a positive way, you will set them on a path of a lifelong love of reading and learning.”
This movement will take time and people. Lead to Read KC’s goal is to connect 5,000 readers to 5,000 children in the urban core by 2020. That’s why recruiting volunteer readers from throughout the metro will be key.
Businesses, organizations and clubs that want to get involved can visit LeadToReadkc.org. As a company, group or individual, you can donate, become a reader or join the effort as a partner.