New program focuses on improving 1st-graders' reading skills

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A new community-driven initiative called Read to Grow has some Bartow County educators believing the “secret ingredient” to literacy success has been found.

Six months ago, a group of community members brought their concept for a new program to strengthen literacy skills to the Bartow County Board of Education, Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page and the elementary school principals.

The idea behind the program was simple – allow community volunteers to go into the classrooms and help the students improve their reading skills.

As a result, more than 100 volunteers underwent the necessary training, fingerprinting and background checks and will be entering the first-grade classrooms at Allatoona, Clear Creek, Cloverleaf and Kingston elementary schools Monday to work with students, according to a press release.

“When this idea came to me from community leaders, the choice was clear,” Page said. “Every successful program I’ve ever been involved in was tightly woven with community support. We are excited to see our stakeholders so invested in raising the number of students reading on or above grade level. We are confident that we’ll receive more participation throughout the year and will be able to extend the program to reach more schools next year.”

Teachers were overwhelmed with the outpouring of support for Bartow County’s younger students.

“When our first-grade teachers heard about the program for the first time, many became teary-eyed because they know how much this community support will benefit our children,” Kingston Principal Philena Johnson said.

First-graders are “expected to have the most growth in foundational reading skills,” Johnson said.

“Students who fall behind during this critical year often struggle with reading during the rest of their school experience,” she said. “Having the Read to Grow volunteers working with our teachers and students will provide our children with the best learning environment for mastering these foundational skills, ensuring that they become successful readers.”

Program volunteers, who will double the individualized reading support inside classrooms, will help with one-to-one and small-group reading, literacy games and vocabulary.

“By the end of first grade, students should be able to read 47 words per minute with 90 percent accuracy,” Allatoona Principal Jim Bishop said. “Over the last several years, an average of only 60 percent of our students have met that target. My teachers have a game plan, and they are convinced that these volunteers are the secret ingredient to help push our students to the next level.”

Cloverleaf Principal Dr. Evie Barge commended the group for doing more than just talking about the literacy problem.

“Many adults will pat a child on the head and say, ‘You can do this,’ but this active community group is giving action to words,” she said. “They are rolling up their sleeves and working with our teachers to help our students. This will give our students the confidence to believe in themselves, and then there is no stopping them.”

The four schools, which represent the county’s three feeder patterns, will be supported by the Read to Grow Council, made up of Bartow County Chief Academic Officer Dr. David Chiprany, Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman Janet Queen, Bartow Collaborative Executive Director Doug Belisle, Rep.-elect Matthew Gambill and Bartow Baptist Association associational missionary David Franklin.

Belisle called the initiative “incredible.

“I’m just really excited about the program,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great thing for our community, and I think it’s going to provide a lot of support for our educators who really could use it so I’m very excited to see what happens this year with this program. It’s definitely something that’s going to allow us to, I think, move the needle on reading scores in our county and help with literacy.” 

The program was kind of birthed out of a community profile” done by the collaborative, the chamber and faith-based organizations that found strengthening literacy was one of the biggest needs in Bartow County, Belisle said.

“A lot of the consequences that come from not having good literacy rates can really be detrimental to a community,” he said. “So we kind of worked out a partnership with the school system to pilot this project in four of the elementary schools in the county.”

Belisle added people who represented the different sectors of the community – education, business, nonprofit, government and faith-based – were asked to serve on the council.

As for funding, Read to Grow needs finances for fingerprinting and background checks for each volunteer, and Franklin helped raise money to cover some of those costs.

“What an honor it has been to work with so many volunteers and a school system that cares about kids and helping them flourish,” he said. “Read to Grow has amazing potential to make an incredible impact in our community and students’ lives for years to come.”

Belisle said the hope is that “after this year of piloting within the four schools that have been selected that it will spread to the rest of the elementary schools in the county.”

“So once we pilot it, I know that this year will be one that we’ll learn a lot, and we’ll get to work out a lot of the kinks this year that maybe we’ve not quite planned for, but I’m very optimistic at looking at future years including a lot of elementary schools,” he said.