Steve Brady will never forget the magic that took place when students from Spring Lake Park High School began visiting his first-grade classroom. The high school kids’ mission was simple: spend one-on-one time with struggling readers and help them improve their skills.
One little boy quickly became enamored with Jorde Ranum, a senior three-sport athlete.
“This boy plays sports and he wanted Jorde’s autograph,” Brady said. “And Jorde was such a nice guy to give it to him, and that really made a nice bond between those two. Every day the kid would ask, ‘Is Jorde coming today?’
“It’s just that little nudge, just one more effort that we can do to make sure the kids can read.”
Since January a group of about 20 Spring Lake Park high school students have been working with first- and second-graders at nearby Woodcrest Elementary, using a rotating schedule that has two, three or four students visiting three days each week. The high school students are invited to participate in the program and they go through training sessions.
“We wanted to give our children more opportunities to read, and to create relationships and to feel connected,” said Woodcrest principal Judi Kahoun. “We’re seeing gains in reading, and the kids love the connections. It’s real important for our kids just to have another person they can connect with who can make a difference in their lives.”
The process is not complicated. The high school kids (Bria Jones is pictured at right) and their reading buddies sit together in the hallway outside the classroom, and the children read as the older students help them. The high school students will offer advice, such as “Look at the first letter, make the sounds. Does it make sense?”
First-grade teacher Nikki Pudwill said, “They have a positive impact, the kids are excited to see them and they know them by name. I’ve overheard them using strategies, helping kids figure out the words. They interact and work together and it’s very, very positive.”
It’s so simple in its execution, yet so important in its benefits.
“It has really motivated the kids,” first-grade teacher Curtis Horton said. “It’s the same books they’ve read with me and other volunteers, but to be with the high school kids, they are so psyched to read to them.”
The positives work both ways.
“I just think it’s really good giving back to the kids,” said Courtney Nelson, a senior member of the hockey and golf teams. “It’s fun to see them and how much they progress. Going back each time and seeing the smile on their faces is just awesome. They love the experience, and I think it’s very humbling and good for us as well. I enjoy it a lot.
“I think it’s important that we have athletes going over to Woodcrest because it shows that you can excel both academically and on the field. It encourages both, but it shows that school definitely comes first and having those basic skills is necessary.”
The idea for the program sprang from Homecoming week last fall, when Spring Lake Park football players visited all the elementary schools in the district (which is in the northern Twin Cities suburbs).
“We saw the reaction from the kids,” said athletic director Mike Cunningham. The reading program began with team captains in January and has expanded to other students.
“The term I’ve been using with them is, ‘You guys need to leave a legacy here,’ ” Cunningham said.
Amy Bjurlin, a former Woodcrest teacher who now helps staff there improve their skills, trains the high school students before they begin working with young readers.
“We’ve gone through some strategies for coaching elementary students in reading,” said Bjurlin (pictured below). “It’s pretty simple texts that the students are reading, and I’ve modeled for them how a student might read that text, the errors they might make and how they can coach them without telling them the word, so the students have the chance to practice some of those reading strategies on their own with the student sitting with them. The goal is for them to be independent when the coach isn’t sitting there.
“And we remind them to just really encourage the kids in their reading, to offer praise and feedback for the good reading they do. What we’ve seen is the elementary students are pretty excited to read with the high school students. When we started this we really hit our first-grade students hard with a lot of volunteers, and their oral reading scores have gone up a ton.”
The high school students will often wear a sports jersey or other attire that identifies them as Spring Lake Park Panthers. The young readers receive stickers that say “I Read With a Panther.”
It’s a perfect win-win situation.
“The high school kids have really picked up on the coaching. They’re doing a great job of interacting with the students,” Bjurlin said. “Staff members will walk by and say, ‘Wow, these guys are the real deal.’ They picked up the training quickly and they’ve been super responsible and reliable. It’s fun to see them doing such a great job.”
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BY THE NUMBERS
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