Reading program marks 20 years and two million books at McKinley event

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - State Rep. Chris Harker helps McKinley Elementary School student Lacie Puhlman read during a celebration of the SMART reading program.While reading a children’s book on Friday morning to Jack, a student at McKinley Elementary School, Kristen Pendergrass offered her most practical assistance when the boy came across an unfamiliar arrangement of letters.

“I helped him a couple times on words he couldn’t pronounce, or words he skipped over,” she explained.

But it was the less technical role Pendergrass played — as an engaged mentor sharing her enthusiasm of books and reading — that she found most powerful.

“I love it,” she said. “As a kid, reading was kind of exciting to me. And it was exciting to see (these kids) excited about reading.”

That sense of shared wonder is just the kind of thing staff of the SMART, or Start Making A Reader Today, program love to hear.

To celebrate its 20-year anniversary as well as the milestone of placing two million books in the hands of more than 152,000 children throughout Oregon, SMART held a special reading and book-donation event Friday morning at McKinley Elementary School, 1500 N.W. 185th Ave.

Local and regional leaders, such as Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle and Oregon’s District 34 Rep. Chris Harker (D-Washington County) turned up to read to a select group of kindergarten through second-grade students in the school’s designated SMART reading room.

Held at schools in eight geographical regions across the state, the event was part of the SMART organization’s “2 Million and Still Reading,” a statewide campaign designed to emphasize the importance of access to books at home in a child’s literacy development.

With budget reductions leading to larger class sizes and teachers stretched thinner than ever, a program that allows students to develop reading skills with a mentor outside the classroom is invaluable, said McKinley Principal Annie Pleau.

“SMART provides a lot of help for children, especially those struggling with reading, to get some one-on-one time with an adult — a professional reader. When I talked to the kids, I could tell they felt a connection to their reader. They couldn’t stop talking about the books.”

When not holding special events, the SMART program pairs an adult volunteer with children for two, one-on-one 30-minute reading sessions a week. Children read with two different volunteers each week for seven months, toward a total of 28 hours of individual attention.

The program focuses on schools receiving federal assistance based on higher numbers of children from lower-income families.

Since SMART began serving Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties in 1992, 2,000 program volunteers have given away nearly 475,000 books to 46,971 children, according to program officials.

“The volunteer coordinators at every school are really putting in a herculean amount of time,” said Chris Otis, SMART’s executive director. “The teachers identify kids who, for a variety of reasons, may be behind the benchmark of their peer group. A lot of the kids are from family situations that are fairly chaotic.”

Harker, who first heard about the program through his retired friends who started volunteering, said the program helps create lasting, educational-based bonds between students and mentoring adults.

“It’s very fun to meet little kids and try to draw them out” with a new book, he said. “Pairing someone who’s got the time with a kid who’s hungry — that’s a great combination.”

Sandra Taylor, who has served for years as SMART program volunteer site coordinator at McKinley, said she sees the difference the one-on-one time makes in the children as well as teachers and the reading volunteers.

“I always hear back from teachers who say what a difference (SMART) is making already,” she said, referring to earlier in the school year. “It’s not just about reading. It affects their feeling of self-worth. They know they’re here to read, but they know it’s fun and relaxed.”

With her own grandchildren living across the country, Taylor gets a kick out of seeing children come alive through reading at school.

“I’m a long-distance grandma,” she said. “So these are my sub-grandchildren.”

When Friday’s SMART event wrapped up, Principal Pleau said the participating children liked the idea that they could continue exploring the book they read through that day.

“They were delighted,” she said. “Some of them said, ‘I can’t believe I get to keep this!’”

For more information about the SMART program, visit or call TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Alex Georgeras looks through a stack of paperback books, one of which he's allowed to take home. Alex is part of the SMART reading program at McKinley Elementary School, where he receives extra attention to improve reading comprehension.

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