United Way spearheads literacy in schools

SALISBURY — One doesn’t have to read between the lines to see the United Way of Addison County’s (UWAC) commitment to literacy.
The nonprofit organization on Monday announced a three-year, $30,000 commitment to promoting reading in four county grade schools, beginning with Salisbury Elementary.
At issue is a new partnership between UWAC’s and Everybody Wins!, a national organization promoting children’s literacy. The United Way will provide resources for Everybody Wins! to hire literacy coordinators at four area elementary schools. Those coordinators will recruit adult mentors to partner with young students for optional weekly reading sessions during lunch and recess periods to instill literacy skills — and a love of books — in children.
The effort is part of a United Way Worldwide program to recruit one million reading mentors over the next three years as part of its initiative to increase reading proficiency and student engagement, explained UWAC Co-director Helen Freismuth.
Partnering with Everybody Wins! made sense to UWAC officials because the organization has, for many years, operated a popular literacy mentor program at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School. There, more than 60 adults from all walks of life have been paired with students in grades three through six who spend around 45 minutes, one day per week, reading together or playing literacy games.
The literacy program will now be exported to Salisbury Elementary School under the supervision of Abi Sessions. Sessions is the former principal of the school, which currently has 81 students.
“It was a wonderful fit for me,” Sessions said on Monday. “It is wonderful to be back at the Salisbury school in this capacity.”
She’s already screened and recruited nine adult mentors and has paired them with eager first- and second-grade students with compatible interests. She is looking for another “wave” of mentors to join the program following the February break.
“The goal is for all of the mentors to continue with their students during the years to come,” Sessions said.
Freismuth explained the program is being offered to the younger Salisbury students at this point in order to build an early literacy foundation.
“We really want to build that good base of reading skills, curiosity, interest in reading and engagement in school,” Freismuth said. “We feel that the primary grades is the place to start. By fourth grade, children are reading to learn and so it is important that they are… engaged and curious about school.”
As at the Mary Hogan School, Salisbury’s program is optional. It is run during lunch (11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.), and not during regular class time. Students — especially those showing some early struggles with reading — are encouraged to participate, according to organizers.
“You want to target the kids that benefit the most,” Sessions said, adding many students are thrilled to have a whole hour of undivided attention with an adult.
“It’s quite a gift to some children,” she said.
The volunteer mentors come from all walks of life, including professionals, retirees, college students and stay-at-home parents.
“Some of the volunteers say, ‘This is the best part of my whole week,’” Sessions said.
Participants in the program can select books from an Everybody Wins! cart or from the school library. Together, the student and mentor can get lost in the adventure, humor or intrigue of a story.
Monday saw Charlie Sabukewicz and Mary Hogan sixth-grader Jake Ingenthron reading the book “Redwall” by Brian Jacques, an adventure tale. The pair have been reading together for the past four years, and both look forward to their weekly sessions.
“The time goes by too quickly,” said Sabukewicz, who retired in 1999 from teaching English at Middlebury Union High School.
“Jake loves to read and he is a good reader,” he added.
The weekly sessions have produced a bond that transcends literacy. They occasionally share personal stories and exchange cards during the holidays.
“I’ve become great friends with Charlie,” said Jake, who is disappointed the reading sessions will draw to a close this May. Jake will make the jump to Middlebury Union Middle School next fall.
Plans call for UWAC and Everybody Wins! to introduce the program at Shoreham Elementary School next spring. The other two participating schools have yet to be picked. Anyone wanting to volunteer or learn more about the program should call Freismuth at UWAC at 388-7189.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addis

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