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September 10, 2020

Reading Partners Baltimore continues literacy mission virtually

Originally posted on WMAR Baltimore

One thing coronavirus hasn’t taken away from us—the joy of reading a good book. Sadly, only around 35 percent of 4th grade students can read proficiently. And those children that can’t by that age are four times less likely to graduate high school on time.

Most schools in Maryland are starting out with online learning because of COVID-19. The gift of understanding and creating stories won’t be lost for many Baltimore City students thanks to a nonprofit called Reading Partners Baltimore. Reading Partners Connects is the organization’s new online format.

Before Denise Leftwich volunteered with Reading Partners Baltimore, she worked in my field of broadcast journalism and then got into teaching.

“My goal was to find volunteer work where my talents could be applied,” said Leftwich. “I thought Reading Partners might be a good place to start.”

She’s one of the more than 500 volunteer tutors who will reach around 400 students in 16 Baltimore City Public Schools. Nearly half the number of last year, but still reaching so many kids during a crucial time, can have a powerful influence.

“We know that there’s that really important transition in third grade when a student goes from learning to read to reading to learn,” said Jeffrey Zwillenberg.  Zwillenberg is an Executive Director with the organization.

He and his team have spent the months leading up to the school year adjusting the curriculum to create a digital library and train all the volunteers. While the way they deliver will change, the core of their mission stays the same.

“Whether it’s suffixes or blending or rhyming we use books to reinforce the skill that they just learned during that lesson,” he said.

The volunteers realize reaching the students through the screen brings new challenges and distractions. But like any good book, they hope the end result still leaves an impact.

“They have to get to know who we are through the screen,” Leftwich said. “That means we need to bring a little more energy than we have to before. We have to be a little more animated. We have to have some signals as to when we need to stop.”

Mary K. Tilghman is a retired author whose been volunteering for five years. Her payoff is seeing a young person’s face light up as they choose their favorite book about a princess or dinosaurs.

“After a while, he was helping me pronounce the names of the dinosaurs and it was fun,” Tighman said. “That’s when reading becomes fun is when they get to pick a book and they get to talk about what they like about that book.”

The words and faces are shifting to screens. The hearts that bind are stronger than ever. Connecting children with a love for literature. The plan is to have the Connects program running by October 1.

They are always looking for volunteers and donations. To learn more click here.

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