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Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 04:29 pm

Volunteers by the dozens help children learn to read

Adult reading mentors serve as positive role models


Stephanie and Bill Barton of Rochester are organizing volunteers to start a reading mentorship program at McClernand Elementary School.

Following a successful renovation at McClernand Elementary school, a group of volunteers is preparing to launch a reading mentoring program at the school.

Bill Barton of Rochester, who is organizing the program, says it will offer mentorship to young students while building reading comprehension and critical thinking skills.

McClernand Elementary School, 801 N. Sixth St., was the site of an “extreme school makeover” during Sharefest, a school renovation effort spearheaded by West Side Christian Church of Springfield in August. Jane Addams Elementary School also received renovations during the project, and the church previously organized volunteers and local businesses to renovate Harvard Park Elementary School in 2011.

Barton is a member of Rochester Christian Church, which has “adopted” McClernand in an effort to provide community involvement and support to schools. Volunteers – many of them from Rochester Christian Church – signed up during Sharefest to be reading mentors for the program at McClernand. Once the program begins, 40 to 50 volunteers will visit the school once per week, and each will listen as a student reads to them. The volunteers have been trained to ask questions about the reading material to stoke reading comprehension and analytical skills.

Barton grew up in Lincoln and moved away as an adult. He says he moved to Springfield about a year ago with his wife and wanted to be involved in a “neighborhood transformation project.”

“I want to live a life that makes a difference in not only lives of other people, but to affect the entire community landscape,” he said. “What drew us to this school project is that a lot of times, school districts take such a bad rap for a lot of the challenges, but it’s often not the schools’ fault. They don’t have the resources or the manpower to do some of this stuff.”

Barton notes that McClernand’s parent resource coordinator was eliminated due to budget cuts last year, so that task fell on teachers and McClernand principal Michelle Robertson.

“There’s no reason a community can’t come around local schools,” he said. “That’s the lifeblood of your community. If the schools aren’t good, there are going to be a lot of other negative repercussions.”

The reading mentorship program is modeled after a similar program started at Harvard Park Elementary about five years ago. Harvard Park principal Jim Hayes says about 60 children at the school eagerly give up recess time once a week to read to their mentors. Statistics gathered by the school since the start of the program show reading skills have improved, Hayes says.

“We’re starting to see a lot of growth in terms of their reading scores, and that’s huge,” he said. “That’s why we put a lot behind this program. We say, ‘Yeah, there’s lots of research out there, but here’s our own research from in-house.’ ”

He adds that many of the students at Harvard Park lack a steady home life, so the reading mentors also serve as positive role models in a one-on-one relationship.

“That relationship piece is so important with kids,” Hayes says. “Maybe the kid had a rough morning or rough evening, so maybe they don’t read for the first 10 minutes and instead just talk. … That’s all because of how great our reading mentors are. They’re caring adults who make it fun. They interact with the kids on a positive note. They’re just happy to be around. They’re amazing people from all walks of life, and they just light up the entire school.”

Barton, the volunteer coordinator for the McClernand program, says Oct. 1 will be the first meeting between students and reading mentors. He says the program could use an additional 10 volunteers.

Jim Hayes, the Harvard Park principal, says more volunteers are always welcome at his school also, but the role requires that volunteers can be there every week.

“It has to be consistent,” he said. “We have lots of people who want to come in once or twice, but really our reading mentors are elite volunteers who dedicate their time. That’s the key to why it works. … We’re really starting to see the impact and the effort in terms of how much these kids love to read now. It’s amazing.”

For more information, contact Bill Barton at 630-340-1903 or billbarton83@gmail.com.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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