SOAPBOX • Volunteers encourage children to boost scores and become readers for life

It was no ordinary day at Chief Joseph Elementary School in North Portland. On a recent Friday, students met with Mayor Vera Katz and Multnomah County Chairwoman Diane Linn, who shared their love of reading with the students and congratulated the literacy volunteers who play such an important role in helping kids learn to read.

At Chief Joseph, the joint effort of teachers and community volunteers involved in the SMART (Start Making a Reader Today) and Multnomah County Library Books 2 U programs have helped increase the number of students who meet or exceed the state reading benchmark by more than 15 percent in the past four years.

Last year, nearly 90 percent of Chief Joseph's third-graders read at grade level. In comparison, for Multnomah County as a whole about 83 percent of third-graders are meeting the benchmark.

Literacy volunteers who can commit to one hour a week are needed at every school, especially those in which large numbers of children are struggling with reading. Mayor Katz and Chairwoman Linn also know that children who don't learn to read well by the end of third grade are more likely to drop out of school, drop into the welfare system and face substantial educational, social and economic challenges throughout their lives.

Up until third grade, children focus on learning to read; after third grade they must read to learn. Right now, nearly 20 percent of third-graders in Multnomah County do not read at grade level. In an economy where information is a commodity, we owe it all our children to help them learn to read and become productive citizens.

Programs that bring adult volunteers into schools to read with children and get them excited about reading 'make a tremendous difference,' says Chief Joseph Principal Kathy Jaffe. 'Their presence says to a child that someone cares and that reading is really important.'

Jaffe's views are backed by solid research showing that children are most likely to reach their potential as readers if they have early experiences with books in safe, consistent, caring surroundings with adults. Studies also show that students who have had the benefit of reading with a SMART volunteer typically improve their reading ability and maintain gains.

Through their work with Connecting for Kids, a partnership between the Multnomah County Commission on Children and Families and the Leaders Roundtable, Mayor Katz and Chairwoman Linn are underscoring the need for more literacy volunteers, especially in east county schools.

In addition to SMART, Multnomah County schools offer volunteer opportunities through the OASIS tutoring program (for volunteers ages 50 and older) and the Books 2 U program.

Every child who is struggling to learn to read deserves a literacy volunteer. Call 503-988-4383 or visit today for information on volunteering.

Duncan Wyse is executive director of the Oregon Business Council and chairman of the Connecting for Kids Third Grade Reading Initiative Steering Committee.

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