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December 5, 2018

Spreading the words on joys of reading

Put the two together, volunteer Debbie Dawkins tells Aleena, the wispy San Jose second-grader with a long black ponytail, and they make a long “o”.

As in Oh!

That leads us to moat and goat and that boat in the book called Joe’s Toe that is splayed out on the tiny table between the two.

And with that, Aleena jumps in, slowly and softly reading each word aloud, using the day’s two letters like a safecracker to pick the locks on this story, to open it up sentence by sentence.

“Be sure to pause at the period,” Dawkins, 58, tells Aleena ,whom she works with twice a week as part of Reading Partners, a Bay Area-based program that helps literacy-challenged students across the country master the reading skills they need to survive in school. “Each sentence has its own idea and if you don’t pause at the periods, all these ideas run together.”

Dressed in a green shirt and gray sneakers, Aleena smiles awkwardly. And she’s got plenty to smile about. The youngster is making good progress through her 45-minute sessions with Dawkins, a San Jose stay-at-home mom whose son volunteered for Reading Partners Silicon Valley while he was in high school and inspired his mom to join in after he and his brother went off to college. Dawkins has been showing up now for seven years.

Now in its 20th year, Reading Partners works with thousands of students across the country, including 15 schools here in Silicon Valley.  Dawkins is one of nearly 30 volunteers who come weekly to a brightly-lit converted classroom on this East San Jose campus, collaborating with regional staff and an on-site coordinator from the national service organization AmeriCorps on one common goal: to help 55 students this school year bring their reading skills up to their appropriate grade level.

“The program was started in Silicon Valley in 1999 by some teachers who saw that a lot of kids were not reading at their grade level,” said Mark Green, executive director for Reading Partners Silicon Valley. “The founders wanted to bring in community members to help these kids out and we’re now in over 200 schools across the country, from here to New York City. And each year we now work with just over 11,000 volunteers and 10,000 students.”

For the students, whose reading progress is carefully tracked from week to week and year to year, the payoff is obvious: kids, many of them trying to read in English when their native language is something else, get a much-needed boost that over time can help them read at the same level as their classmates and, in turn, have a fighting chance of doing well in their other subjects.

When students can’t read at their grade level by third or fourth grade, studies show that they tend to fall farther and farther behind in school. “The elementary grades are strong predictor of future academic success,” Reading Partners says in its promotional material. “Research shows a student who is not reading proficiently by third grade is four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19 than a child who is reading proficiently by third grade.”

For the volunteers, the payoff is just as tangible, says Green, who has personally experienced the satisfaction of helping young students to read and to comprehend what they’re reading.

“When I’d volunteer with the students it was probably the one hour of my day when I’d be totally focused on just one thing,” he says. “It was like the perfect meditation and gave me a feeling I couldn’t get anywhere else, because my mind wasn’t jumping around on three or four different things.”

And then there were the smiles, he says.

“There’s that sheer joy of seeing a smile on the student’s face, because they knew this was a time dedicated solely to them,” Green says. “Their faces would light up when they came into the room. And I got to see first-hand the improvement they were making by looking at my notes when they first entered the program and then at the end of the year.”

Dawkins leans in over her student, gently coaxing her along as the girl reads another page of Joe’s Toe, confidently navigating her way through the narrative as if each new word was some precious gem to discover and to behold. “It’s amazing,” Dawkins said, ‘to watch these kids bloom and blossom. By the end of the year, they’re like a different child.”

She remembers one young girl who started off in school as an emerging reader who’d been raised speaking only Spanish. “We worked together so hard,” Dawkins recalls, “starting off with the sounds and names of the letters, and then she started taking books home everyday. I could see her progressing in her reading as well as with her social skills. As she learned to read she became less shy and more talkative.”

Reading Partners is seeking $11,000 from Wishbook readers and would use the money to sponsor students for a full school year in its Silicon Valley schools. The cost for each student includes curriculum and program materials, student assessment costs and operational costs.

Dawkins and her fellow volunteers have learned this lesson first-hand through their work with Reading Partners: “The program,” she says, “identifies kids early on who are struggling. And if these kids don’t get help with their reading skills, it becomes harder and harder for them to ever catch up with their classmates. To see your class move ahead while you fall behind must be a horrible feeling.”

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