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Reading program helps children shine

by Kathryn Corazzelli
summit daily news
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Mary Anne Johnston knows a thing or two about books. Having graduated from the University of Colorado with a Ph.D. in education, she has taught at numerous schools: The Metropolitan State College in Denver, Yale School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Now she is the literacy chairman for the Rotary Club of Summit County, where she helped create the reading buddies program in the fall of 2009. The program pairs volunteers with children – grades K to 6 – to help students develop reading and writing skills.

“Reading opens the door to everything you do,” she said. “If you can read well, it opens opportunities.”

Johnston said despite her experience in higher education, her original focus was on early childhood education. She was inspired to help spearhead a Summit County reading buddies chapter after continually reading stories about the program throughout the country. Johnston said Teddy Kennedy was a reading buddy volunteer.

The goal of the program is “to inspire young students to become effective and enthusiastic readers.” The program takes place at Summit County elementary schools, where teachers elect students who need extra support. The students are then paired with volunteers who work to encourage the children while they’re reading. Volunteers help students stuck on certain words, assist them in finding meaning during their reading, and offer support while they read. Sessions are generally one-on-one, but sometimes involve a few students at a time. They usually last a half hour to an hour.

Johnston said some students tend to be more cautious and shy in group settings, and need individual attention to learn.

Silverthorne volunteer Bob Salazar said his reading buddy, fourth-grade student Skyler Calpin, seems to like reading outside of the classroom.

“I think more than anything she really appreciates the one-on-one attention,” he said. “I think she definitely looks forward to it.”

Salazar said he’s trying to “push the envelope reading-wise,” but there’s no pressure involved.

“Mainly it’s fun,” he said.

Salazar said Calpin enjoys reading scary stories. They just finished reading the first book of “The Spiderwick Chronicles series,” which he said they both enjoyed. Salazar said some days they even do math problems.

Breckenridge volunteer Jane Barber said she feels she makes the most difference when she works with students a few days a week instead of one. She said good communication with the child’s teacher is also important for the student’s remedial development.

This is Barber’s second year with reading buddies. After working once a week in Breckenridge Elementary last year she sought out the program during a recent stint in Cleveland. There, she worked two to three times a week with a first-grader named Nate for five straight weeks. She said when they started, Nate was “a very beginner reader.” At the end of their time together, Nate had “more confidence, more fluidity.”

Volunteer Deb Nelson said she has worked with Silverthorne Elementary student Brandon Estrada since the fall. She said he’s made a huge amount of progress in their short time together.

“I see improvement every week,” she said. “He’s a good little reader.”

Johnston said the program “meets a need for both kids and adults.” She said she gets e-mails from volunteers telling her how much they enjoy what they’re doing.

“Everyone finds it gratifying,” she said.

Salazar – a self-employed electrician – said he has always considered teaching. His reading buddies experience makes him feel like he would be successful in a new career.

“This gives me confidence that I would have a talent for it and be effective as a teacher,” he said.

Salazar said he’s grateful there are people like Johnston who facilitate these opportunities, for both the volunteers and the students. He said there’s many people – like himself – want to do these sorts of things but don’t know how to get started.

Barber – whose background is in pediatric nursing – said she loves seeing “the smile in the child’s eyes.” She enjoys witnessing a growing confidence in children’s reading abilities and seeing that they enjoy being read to and reading to others. She said she is thankful for the program because it provided her with an avenue to become involved with the school system after her children were grown.

Nelson, who has no children of her own, said she learns “a lot” from her reading buddy. He teaches her Spanish words and tells her about new video games.

“We both get a lot out of it,” she said.

Johnston said the program is always seeking more volunteers. The majority of the current volunteers work in Frisco Elementary, but her goal is to have people working in all six Summit County elementary schools.

Johnston said most of her current volunteers are retired, but the program offers flexibility for those with jobs. Salazar said his self-employment allows him to find time to participate.

Nelson said large class sizes necessitate the need for volunteers.

“These teachers need help,” she said.


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