Ready.Set.READ! (RSR) is a community-wide initiative managed by United Way of Berks County, which focuses on early grade reading success because it is a critical component of learning and a leading indicator of future academic and educational success. With 43% of Berks County third graders reading below grade level, many of our children are four times more likely to drop out of school and 13 times more likely to drop out if they live in poverty. With statistics like these, RSR works hard to ensure reading proficiency for students by the end of third grade.
A major strategy of the initiative is the Star Readers tutoring program. Star Readers is RSR’s largest program with over 400 volunteers providing tutoring assistance to struggling second and third grade readers within 29 schools in Berks County.
In the fall of 2017, after Cumru Elementary Ready.Set.READ! coordinators Sue Wentling and Kirsten Shockey expressed their thoughts that Ready.Set.READ! needed to expand to first grade, discussion began and led the RSR team to review the idea of expanding the Star Readers program to first grade. Wentling said, “We felt the kids needed more support before they entered into the second grade.”
Ready.Set.READ! Director Cindy Line agreed. “The Brandywine Heights Area School District has been offering tutoring for first graders for years, and there has been great value in the program.” It was becoming evident that second grade may be too late to begin focusing on reading skills because, “reading skills begin at birth; the earlier we train a child, the better and more prepared they will be to learn to read,“ Line said.
In January of 2018, the idea of the first grade tutoring became a reality with the expansion being introduced to three school districts: Governor Mifflin, Antietam, and Conrad Weiser. The expansion brought change to the format of the tutoring program. With the second and third grader, each tutor is assigned one student for the duration for the school year and they spend one hour a week with the student focusing on reading, vocabulary, and literacy activities. The first grade program is structured differently. Each tutor works with three to four first grade students for 15 minutes. During that time, they read a story and work on word skills, and then the children rotate to another tutor. Line shared that the timeframe was shortened because “an hour is too much time for the attention span of a first grader.”
Mifflin Park Elementary and Cumru Elementary are the first schools in the Governor Mifflin district to offer first grade tutoring. Kimberly Parker, the Ready.Set.READ! coordinator of Mifflin Park Elementary, shared, “I love being a part of new things because it allows the opportunity to continually make it better.” Parker also said, “With the program beginning with younger students the hope is to continue to see fewer students needing tutoring in the future.” Cumru Elementary coordinator, Sue Wentley, said, “We have seen a positive amount of growth. It is exhilarating that the kids are not only reaching success, they are also receiving emotional support knowing an adult is committed to spend time with them each week.”
Not only are coordinators excited for the expansion, but so are the tutors. Long time tutor, Martha Swartz shared she loves tutoring because, “I love reading and I think it is important.” She also shared she is a tutor, “because we can help the kids and mentor them by showing them an adult is dedicated to them for an entire school year because we believe in how great they are.”
Vicki Pinkard is a tutor to both second and first grade students. Vicki enjoys being a tutor because she is passionate about reading and knows how important literacy is to young children. She understands the importance of introducing tutoring at a younger age and she is already seeing the rewards of her work. “I see a big difference each week I tutor the first graders,“ she said.
As the program continues to grow, so does the hope that Ready.Set.READ! will be able to ensure more Berks County students attain reading proficiency by the end of third grade.
If interested in volunteering to be a Star Readers tutor please contact Darby Wiekrykas at Darbyw@uwberks.org or by phone (610)- 685-4574.