School systems statewide are learning about a Bartow County program using community volunteers that is helping first graders significantly increase their reading skills.

The Georgia School Boards Association gave Superintendent Phillip Page and the Bartow County Board of Education its inaugural Leading Edge Award Dec. 5 for the 2-year-old Read to Grow program.

The award recognizes innovative and “out of the box” educational projects and programs that have proven effective in increasing student achievement.

“Read to Grow has received state and national recognition as an example of how a school system and community can work together to improve literacy,” Page said. “The success of the program is a testament to our teachers embracing our community’s input and involvement in student achievement.”

The program produced “significant” improvement in reading scores while the number of volunteers tripled between its first and second years, said Bartow County Board of Education Chairman Fred Kittle.

It used the volunteers to serve more than 1,100 students in the school system’s first grade classrooms this year, said program director Kristy Mitchell.

Read to Grow’s goal is for all students to be reading on their grade level by third grade, Mitchell said.

Volunteers typically spend an hour a week working with students individually or in small groups on recognition of sight words or other literacy skills.

Examples of sight words are “light” or “because” — both of which cannot be learned by sounding them out by their letters.

Mitchell said teachers saw gains in students’ reading abilities “almost immediately” after it began in 2018.

“But the proof came when our Read to Grow schools doubled their growth on an end-of-year assessment, compared to those schools that did not have volunteers,” Mitchell said.

Pine Log Elementary School teacher Allison Gilbert said first grade “is a critical age for children to learn the foundational skills needed to be successful readers.”

“With the Read to Grow program in place, we are seeing children excited about reading, which is one obstacle we must overcome with a lot of students,” Gilbert said.

“They love our volunteers and they love the daily encouragement they get from our (Read to Grow) volunteers.

“The students are engaged and retaining a lot of sight words that they typically would not be able to do without the extra support during reading,” Gilbert said.

The Georgia School Boards Association provides boards statewide with such services as member training and development, recognitions for their work, financial services, lobbying and more.

Association spokesman Justin Pauly said the Leading Edge Award “seeks to highlight school districts who are leading the way in ensuring students are competitive in an ever-changing global market.”

“This unique achievement recognizes innovative design and implementation of projects and programs by school districts that are having a significant positive impact on student achievement and engagement,” Pauly said.

Bartow County earned the award after Read to Grow saw “record-fast success” in all 12 Bartow County elementary schools, said system spokeswoman Alisha Evans.

Mitchell said she knew the school system should be considered for the award after hearing why it was established.

“During Dr. Page’s first few days on the job (in 2018), he enthusiastically agreed to partner with the faith-based community and place about 150 volunteers in first grade classrooms to help students read,” Mitchell said.

This year, more than 350 additional volunteers from businesses, the community, and local colleges and schools joined the program to assist first-grade teachers — allowing its expansion to some second and third grade classrooms, Evans said.

She said the district is expanding the program to add even more volunteers.

One new recruit, Linda Steele Denham, said she enjoys volunteering with the program “and the students have captured my heart.”

“Friday has become my favorite day of the week, my Read to Grow day. I am so invested in these children,” Denham said.

“I think one of the best things about Read to Grow is that the children understand how important they are to the community and how important learning to read is,” she said.

Evans said the program has led to an increased awareness throughout the community about the importance of being able to read on grade level “and the negative impact students face if they are not literate.”

Mitchell said if students are strong readers “their future possibilities are endless.”

“Dr. Page made a commitment to improve reading levels in all of our students and Read to Grow was an imaginative way of doing so,” she said.

The Bartow board and Page received the award during the school boards association’s annual conference at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel and Convention Center in Atlanta.

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