Studies show the sooner a child learns to read the more successful they will be in school. “If a child isn’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade, they are four times as likely not to graduate,” said Alexandria Mayor Jeffrey W. Hall. “That is why it is critical that we find new ways to help students get to grade level in reading as soon as possible.”
In an effort to help local youth get up to speed, the City of Alexandria is creating a program to utilize community volunteers to work with local at-risk elementary school students. To facilitate the program, the City reached out to the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, which is funding a position to manage the volunteer training and recruitment.
“When you look at test results, literacy levels haven’t improved much locally in the past 10 years,” Hall said. “Our teachers are doing a wonderful job, but there are limits to what they can do in the time they have with the children. And families don’t always have the time or resources to provide the support needed at home. Our goal with this program is to provide extra support from the community to get at-risk students the help they need to get up to the appropriate reading level.”
Sherry Bovey, a VISTA employee working with the City as a volunteer recruitment and management systems designer, is in charge of coordinating the volunteer program. “We need about 75 volunteers per participating school. Ideally, each volunteer will work individually with three students, all from the same classroom,” she said.
Bovey, a certified teacher with a history of working with gifted students and working as a substitute teacher locally, said the sessions will be conducted in-person at participating elementary schools and last about 10 minutes per student.
“Schools tried doing virtual sessions due to COVID, but they were not as effective,” Bovey said, adding face masks and social distancing will be used and the one-on-one sessions will be limited to 10 minutes to minimize exposure risk. She estimates a volunteer seeing three children would typically spend about 45 minutes at the school per training day. Ideally, volunteers would see students two to three times each week.
The program, which targets children in grades 1 through 3, uses flashcards to help students identify words and there is an extensive training program and teacher resource guide to guide the volunteers. “The flashcards for first grade are sight words. Second and third grades focus on words with digraphs, which have letters that work together,” Bovey said.
“When students master a set of words they progress to the next set. The program is designed to allow each child to work at their own pace.”
In addition to the in-person work at schools, Bovey said the program will provide tips for parents and caregivers to use at home. “We encourage parents to read to children, to have the child read out loud and other things. There are a total of 16 tips, with some being things to do daily and some weekly,” she said.
Bovey said she is hoping to get volunteers from across the city representing as much diversity as possible. “Reading is one of those things that doesn’t have respect for class,” she said. “You can have children struggling to read even in homes with lots of books.”
Interested volunteers are encouraged to apply now for the program, Bovey said, adding one elementary school has agreed to participate so far. “We would like to begin working with students before the end of this school year,” she said.
Applicants do not need prior teaching experience and all training materials will be provided. “I think anyone interested in helping children will find this to be a very rewarding program,” she said.
Applicants will go through an interview process and must pass a fingerprint/background check conducted by the Rapides Parish School Board and complete a volunteer application with the school at which they work with students. Once approved, the volunteers will attend an orientation session and then training for the student sessions.
To apply, contact Bovey at 318-449-5279 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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