This is a story that is so good and so positive it is almost exasperating. Let me get to the good and positive part first. I will explain the exasperation later.
Last year, a group of community volunteers in Bartow County, led by the Rev. David Franklin, the head of the Bartow Baptist Association, approached the Board of Education and newly minted Superintendent Phillip Page, wanting to get involved with the schools.
“Our group had done an analysis of how faith-based organizations could become more involved in the community and one thing that we discovered was a need to help first-grade students improve their reading skills,” Franklin said, “Dr. Page was enthusiastic from the beginning.”
Studies show if a child is not a proficient reader by third grade, it is very difficult for him or her to ever catch up. Reading proficiency by third grade is one of the most important predictors of high school graduation and career success.
Out of the conversations came Read to Grow and it has been by any measure an overwhelming success. Superintendent Page says, “Seeing that the community was interested in helping students with their education, I knew it was going to be successful. We have seen impressive results in our first year and have had nothing but positive comments from all involved.”
The program was introduced into four elementary schools in the county. Hopes were to get enough volunteers to make it work. They got 140. Volunteers range in age from 18 to 87, with many being senior citizens, including retired educators. All must pass a thorough background check.
To say the program has worked is an understatement. At one school, teachers saw a 67 percent increase in the number of words the first graders could read. Another saw a 40 percent gain in phonics compared to a 13 percent result last year. At another, students who could sight-read nine words at the beginning of the year are up to 200.
Teachers are ecstatic at the help they are getting from community volunteers. One says, “I am loving having the volunteers come and the kids are enjoying not only the reading but the relationship with these volunteers. It’s nice having someone else show that they care about them other than me.”
The volunteers are equally delighted. A retired teacher involved in Read to Grow said, “I wanted to be a part of a program that could make a difference in children’s lives and to see that every child leaving first grade can read.” She is doing just that.
The Read to Grow program has been so successful in its inaugural year that plans are in the works to implement the program in all 12 Bartow County elementary schools next year. The search is on to add another 400 volunteers for the 2019-20 school year. I predict that will be a slam-dunk. The faith-based community remains heavily involved. Georgia Power, a good citizen wherever they are located, has already committed their considerable resources. Other businesses are joining in and government workers are volunteering their time as well. The program clearly is on a roll.
So, why am I exasperated? Because every community in Georgia could do exactly what has been done and is being done in Bartow County. All it takes are people wanting to make their schools better and a school system willing to work with them to do so as has happened there.
I am exasperated at the whiners who want to talk about how bad things are in our public schools but won’t get off their duffs and go do something about it, leaving the kids and teachers to work it out themselves, many times under less than ideal conditions.
I am exasperated that voucher-obsessed politicians don’t encourage their constituents to get involved in community-driven programs like the one in Bartow County and help solve the problems in our schools instead of taking our tax dollars to run away from those problems.
Who knows, maybe we can get Alice the Walmart Lady to climb down from her moneybags and go into the classroom and teach first-graders how to read and bring that joke of a Secretary of Education Betsy Devos with her.
The folks in Bartow County should be feeling pretty good about themselves right now. They deserve our applause. Through their efforts, they are making this a better world one child at the time and one volunteer at a time. Hopefully, they will inspire the rest of us to do the same.