Reading is a “passion” for Phyllis Jerrel and she found a way to help Bartow County’s youngest students learn to enjoy it as well.

Jerrel, 87, is in her second year as a volunteer in the Read to Grow program at Clear Creek Elementary School.

“I thought I’d be rejected because of (her age),” she said. “They said, ‘Heavens, no, we need you.’”

Read to Grow uses hundreds of volunteers to serve more than 1,100 students in the school system’s first-grade classrooms this year, said program director Kristy Mitchell.

Its goal is for all students to be reading on their grade level by third grade, Mitchell said..

“Teachers provide the work at the students’ level and volunteers provide support as the students learn,” the program’s website stated.

Mitchell said volunteers typically spend an hour a week working with students individually or in small groups.

The work usually consists of practicing recognition of sight words or other literacy skills.

She said the original intent was for volunteers to help students who score in the middle group of test-takers, leaving teachers time to work with those who are far below or well above grade level, Mitchell said.

However, now all students participate after they told their teachers that wanted to participate, she said.

Clear Creek first-grade teacher Jamie Pavao said the assistance from the school’s Read to Grow volunteers in giving some students individualized attention has been “wonderful.”

She said about 25 volunteers help Clear Creek’s five first-grade teachers.

“Our basic focus is on sight words, which is really huge in helping our kids read because they’re just high-frequency words that kids see all the time, everywhere,” she said.

“They’re hard because you can’t sound them out,” Pavao said. “You just visually have to know it when you see it.”

Such words cannot be learned by sounding them out by letters, as in the case of words like “light” or “because.”

“That’s something easy for volunteers to come in and do with our students,” said Pavao, who is in her 10th year of teaching. “They work with them in the classroom or the hall — wherever they prefer and it’s nice and quiet.

“That helps teachers because we’re then able to be in our classrooms with our kids and helping them learn more phonics … and doing guided reading and things like that to keep excelling them in reading.”

Teachers can devote more time to helping students for whom English is not their first language.

It also allows them to spend more time with students who are exceeding expectations “and allows us to push them further,” Pavao said.

She said it also helps build a bridge between the community and school.

“The kids just feel like they have someone who cares about them because they take time out of their day to come and see them and help them.

“That’s huge — the kids actually love it, the volunteers love it, and it gives (the volunteers) something to do during the day, and they really enjoy it.”

THEN AND NOWMitchell said the program originated with a speech by a former school board member about how schools test students in third grade to see if they are reading at a grade level required by the state Department of Education.

“He had shared to the people that when a student is not on grade level by the end of the third grade, they’re most likely not going to catch up,” Mitchell said. “If that happens, that can lead to high school dropouts and everything that goes along with that.”

David Franklin of the Bartow Baptist Association then asked how his group of Baptist churches could help the school system teach basic literacy skills.

He later proposed a plan to then-new Superintendent Phillip Page in mid-2018 that included soliciting volunteers from churches to help teachers increase literacy levels.

“Dr. Page said, ‘Let’s get people to help in first grade.’ That way we’re not waiting until third (grade) and saying, ‘We’ve got to hurry up, it’s crunch time,’” Mitchell said.

“We can work with the students if they’re having challenges early on and, hopefully, then by third grade get them on grade level.”

The program began in the fall of the 2018-2019 school year at Allatoona, Clear Creek, Cloverleaf and Kingston elementary schools.

However, it proved successful enough at improving students’ reading test scores that district officials sought to expand the program to a total of 57 classrooms in all 12 of the district’s elementary schools this year.

Mitchell said tests given to all first-graders showed higher scores — in some cases more than doubled — for those at the four Read to Grow schools.

“Really, the only difference was the addition of the volunteer,” she said.

“We had seen some really great things throughout the year, not only with reading (but) relationships that were made between the students and volunteers,” she said.

Franklin, Page and Mitchell then began recruiting in the community for more volunteers — targeting the business community as well as churches which have a number of senior members who generally have “more flexibility and more time,” Mitchell said.

The result was the addition of 450 additional volunteers for the program. That gave the school system the opportunity to have volunteers four days a week in all first-grade classrooms and once a week in second-grade classes, she said.

Employees from Shaw Industries and LakePoint Sporting Community were among the new volunteers, she said.

Mitchell said the school system tells the volunteers about security measures in place for volunteers, including fingerprinting and background checks, requiring all work be done at the school, and always having another adult in the room with the adult volunteer and student.

“(The volunteers also) are mandated reporters so if they ever have a concern about a student, they’re to report that before they leave the building,” she said.

Jerrel said she heard about the program at Grace Baptist Church after it had been working with Clear Creek on other programs, such as Backpack Buddies to provide weekend food to students in need.

“It’s been an opportunity I’m so thankful the Lord gave me,” Jerrel said.

She said she gives an hour a week to help give some first-grade students at Clear Creek the skills they need to read at the same level as their classmates.

Mitchell said the program’s popularity led her to discuss with principals a future expansion to third-grade classrooms.

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