Reading buddies to the rescue

Published 6:03 am Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Reading Buddy program at Oak Park Elementary — an initiative in which volunteers participate in a paired reading activity with younger students — is celebrating its 10th anniversary this school year. And a continued 100 percent success rate.

The program offers students one-on-one guided reading time to improve their reading and comprehension skills and by extension their vocabulary and overall learning success.

Children are selected for the program based on their reading proficiency scores and then are paired with a reading buddy who they meet once a week for about an hour.

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“The buddies help them raise their scores for their reading levels and reading proficiency,” said Veronica Goodly, the school’s literacy coach. “They come in and we have things set up for them with their reading curriculum and then they practice, practice, practice their reading.”

Goodly said after the pair have finished reading, there are reading-related games they can play.

“We love these volunteers,” she said. “I can’t tell you how much we love them because of the time they take from their schedules just to come and meet with our little Eagles.”

It’s something Chan Willis and Courtney Fenet say they are happy to do.

Willis, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said when the church was formally located on 2nd Avenue, Oak Park Elementary was their neighborhood school.

“The idea initially was that we wanted to support our area school, and being a reading buddy seemed like a good way to do that,” Willis said. “You know the show ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?’ Well, we can handle word recognition and pronunciation and writing and all of that so it wasn’t a hard sell to someone who wasn’t sure he’d know what was going on. It’s a pretty simple way to plug into the community.”

Goodly said statistics show that by second grade if a student isn’t reading on grade level, they will struggle the rest of their school years.

“Between kindergarten and second grade, it’s really, really imperative time for them for phonics and decoding,” Goodly said. “That’s why we chose this program for the second-grade level.”

Fenet, who has volunteered since the program’s inception, said about 100 students have been helped.

“I love to read, but the fun part about it was I hated to read when I was their age,” Fenet said with a laugh. “I grew to love reading and now I read all the time.”

“He puts us to shame,” Willis added. “His wife made him little index cards for him to bring and he downloaded games to an iPad for them.”

“Well, when they have trouble or miss a word, I can print it out in bold letters and at the end of the class we would go back over those tricky words and have them say them over and over again — and it worked,” Fenet said.

The benefits of a Reading Buddy program for big and little buddies are apparent beyond their time together.

Willis said over the course of a day, he has multiple responsibilities “that are not my favorite.”

“This is always my favorite because we’re making a difference,” Willis said. “It’s not just an impact being made on individual kids, but a relationship builds. They still wave at me when I run into them at the store five, six years later. We’re showing them that people care. I think I get so much more out of it then I put into it.”

Fenet said he experiences anxiety each time he comes to the school due to fear he won’t be able to do the job.

“But at the end of class, I really feel I did a good job, did what I was supposed to and I think of an idea of how to do it even better the next time,” Fenet said.

Willis said he’s also realized opportunities to expand the lesson beyond reading.

“There’s a globe in the classroom so if we read about something that happened in France, we can go to the globe and find it together and it puts another layer of information out there for them,” Willis said.

He said he’s also come to appreciate teachers even more.

“We need to be their advocates because of what they deal with every day,” Willis said. “They’re not just teachers; they’re counselors, they’re advisors, they’re friends, they’re encouragers, they’re disciplinarians. They do it all. They’re on the front lines.”

Principal Shalom St. Mary said the students are also experiencing more than academic gains through the program.

“It’s giving them confidence and another layer of adults they can depend on,” St. Mary said. “They know these adults care about them and want them to do their best. The kids are learning it’s worth it to trust others and it’s worth it to try.”

“You know the three R’s — reading, writing and arithmetic? Well we’ve changed it to reading, writing and relationships,” Willis said. “It’s much more than just trying to pronounce a word or how to use it in a sentence. It’s giving them a sense of value, of worth and ability to achieve.”

St. Mary said the program has had a 100 percent success rate.

“Every student who participates has benefited,” she said.

Seven students have been paired with buddies so far this school year, but the school has identified 13 total students who could benefit. For more information on volunteering, call the school at 337-217-4850.