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A SMARTer approach to literacy

Nonprofit devotes 22 years to igniting students' love of reading


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Velynn Brown listens to 3rd grader Gael Rojo Monroy read at Metzger Elementary School. State officials say programs like SMART are an important way to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.If students can’t read by the time they are 8 years old, chances are, it’s over.

According to the Oregon Department of Education, students who can’t read by the third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school, are more likely to live in poverty and be incarcerated and will have a harder time finding jobs.

But that’s not happening at Metzger Elementary School. Not if the crowd that gathered there on Monday has anything to say about it.

Settling into the school’s library, the crowd — comprised of parents, volunteers, business leaders, school officials and a gaggle of kindergartners, first-graders and third-graders — officially kicked off the new season of work for SMART, or 'Start Making A Reader Today,” the Portland-based nonprofit that works with young children across the state to get them up to snuff when it comes to reading.

Each of the students partnered with a volunteer to lose themselves in a book for a half-hour and to experience what Chris Otis, SMART’s executive director, called “a little bit of that SMART magic.”

For more than 20 years, volunteers with SMART have ventured to schools one day a week for a half-hour reading session with a child. Since its formation in 1992, the organization has worked with more than 170,000 at-risk students through one-on-one reading.

“They read with the same kid, in the same place, at the same time, over the course of the school year,” Otis said. “It’s critical that we not just teach reading, we are actually supporting the schools’ curriculum that’s going on in the classroom.”

Building the students’ reading skills is important, but SMART also works on the soft-skills that students need, Otis said, such as boosting children’s self-confidence through practice time and nurturing a love of reading.

“When you feel like you can keep up with the rest of your peers, you feel good about yourself,” said Karen Twain, Metzger’s former principal and the current director of literacy for the state’s education department. “When you don’t, you tend to see more behavioral issues. Kids act out because they want to get out of stuff.”

How to get involved:

SMART, which kicks off its 23rd year next week, still has openings available at both Metzger and Tualatin elementary schools.

Interested in becoming a SMART reader?

Visit getsmartoregon.org.

A ‘SMART’ model

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Karen Twain, literacy director at the Oregon Department of Education, said that programs like SMART and full-day kindergarten are key to getting more students to graduate from high school.Twain, who left the Tigard-Tualatin School District in February to lead the state’s changing approach to literacy, said teaching kids to read is one of the most important obstacles school districts are facing.

“If I could pick anything in the world right now, including world peace — this would be it,” she said.

Twain and SMART face an uphill battle in a state, where more than one-third of students aren’t able to read on their own by the third grade.

“That’s 14,000 kids not reading,” Twain told the group of volunteers on Monday. “That’s a lot of kids.”

About 7,000 of those kids are students of color, Twain said, and 10,800 of them are students living in poverty.

“It’s not very fair how we’ve been doing our work,” she said. “We can continue to teach reading and operate our schools the same way we always have, but we’ll keep getting these same results. Unless we start focusing on certain populations and the way that we teach reading, it will be the same old, same old.”

Monday’s event came a few weeks after Tigard-Tualatin school leaders discussed a stagnating racial achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Literacy plays a big part in that, Twain said.

“It’s weird to think about an 8-year-old’s destiny being controlled by reading, but it’s the truth,” she said. “It’s all tied to that graduation rate.”

SMART is doing the kind of work school district’s across the state need to be doing more of, Twain said: Getting to kids early, before their reading comprehension becomes a problem in other areas.

“SMART does all that already,” Twain said. “You start with the little guys here, and you read to them.”

‘Return on investment’

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - SMART Executive Director Chris Otis speaks to SMART volunteers at Metzger Elementary School on MondayMetzger and Tualatin elementary schools are the only schools in the Tigard-Tualatin School District that SMART partners with. It doesn’t work with any in Sherwood.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” said Metzger’s Principal Lawrence Gillespie, “and SMART is part of our village here.”

Two years ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber unveiled his “40-40-20 plan,” which calls for every student to graduate from high school by the year 2020. Learning to read is a major lynchpin in the operation, Twain said.

“There are really big and important efforts in how we deal with kids going to college, but you know what? If we don’t get these kids reading, they won’t make it to college,” she said.

Twain said she plans to work with the Legislature to bring more SMART-type programs to school districts across the state and work with students to master reading before it’s too late.

“I’m not saying that this will solve all of our problems,” Twain said, “but I am saying that there is some return on investment if we get at it early and not wait until these kids are juniors and seniors in high school and then start remediating them like crazy because we suddenly realize that they have fallen behind.”

In Oregon, 66 percent of students are reading at grade level by third grade, Twain said, the same as the state’s current high school graduation rate.

“Coincidence?” Twain asked. “It’s all about reading.”

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