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Elizabeth Cook: Mission: Teach children to read

Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Yet every year, more than 80 percent of low-income children miss this crucial milestone.

— Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

This, believe it or not, is a love story.

If you visited Overton Elementary School during the past school year, you may have seen one or two or three adult volunteers, each  walking down the hall with a kindergartner, headed to or from the library.

Five days a week, each kindergartner identified as needing help spent at least 30 minutes a day getting one-on-one attention from a volunteer who made a commitment to the child’s future — a commitment to continue reading with him or her all the way through third grade.

The “Mission Possible” project is the brain child of Bob Harris, 75, a perpetual man on a mission. Literally. Bob has gone on mission trips to help build and repair homes all over the world. He’s in the process of hiking the Appalachian Trail one weekend at a time. And he has a vision for getting to the root of our society’s problems with crime, poverty, broken families and hopelessness.

The solution? Make sure youngsters can pass the third-grade reading test.

And the way to do that, Bob believes, is by tutoring students from the minute they enter kindergarten all the way through third grade.

Bob, who has volunteered at Overton for 10 years, won principal GeRita Walden’s approval of the concept first, then started recruiting volunteers — or “agents,” to carry out the Mission Possible theme — to complete Communities in Schools training and undergo background checks.

The school identified about 20 kindergartners who could most benefit from tutoring. Then each child was assigned a team of five volunteers, one for each day of the week.

I’m biased; I was one of those people. Time spent at Overton this past year was often one of the best half-hours of my week.

I wasn’t sure how teachers would take a parade of volunteers pulling students out of class every day, but when volunteer team leaders and teachers gathered at year’s end, the teachers praised the program.

“These students have made growth this year they probably would not have made had someone not been working with them,” said teacher Maria Lewis.

The relationships went beyond reading instruction, teacher Cindy King said. The students looked up to the tutors as role models.

“I think it’s improved student confidence and student growth,” King said.

Students who didn’t know the alphabet in August overcame that deficit and went on to learn letter sounds, blending and high-frequency words.

Jennifer Sheppard, Title I coordinator at Overton, said she thought the concept was the best idea she’d ever heard when Bob first introduced it, and the program did not disappoint.

“We’re extremely blessed that he picked us,” Sheppard said.

Bob says it’s not about him. “It’s about the kids and the potential we have as prosperous citizens to help not only the children but this community by preparing them to be productive.”

The classroom teacher has training the volunteers lack. “But the love factor makes the difference,” Bob says. “She’s not capable of imparting the amount of love that five volunteers can.”

And there is a lot of love involved in seeing this little person each week, coaxing him to sound out words, steering his attention back to the page — fostering a love of reading. 

Bob is deeply spiritual, but instead of helping “the least of these” by giving them food or shelter, he believes we should do something more lasting.

“We need to be teaching children how to read,” he says. “… I’ve learned that this is the real church.”

Efforts to improve children’s literacy are popping up all over. Churches and volunteer groups open their doors for after-school tutoring. Novant Health and Rowan Library make sure each newborn goes home with a book. The Appleseed project gives Head Start children digital tablets loaded with programs and stories.

A new umbrella group — Ready, Set, Read Rowan — is striving to ensure these programs and many more connect with each other and identify gaps.

People who love this community and the children in it are stepping up. It’s a quiet revolution, driven by necessity and fueled by faith, faith that every child has the ability — and the right — to succeed.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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