Helping People

United Way’s ReadingPals brings literacy to preschoolers

ReadingPals volunteer David Carson, left, reads to preschoolers Sophia Martinez-Henao, 4, and Diego Munoz, 4, right, during their reading session. On Tuesday, October 6, 2015, he read to children at iPrep Academy in downtown Miami as part of the United Way program.
ReadingPals volunteer David Carson, left, reads to preschoolers Sophia Martinez-Henao, 4, and Diego Munoz, 4, right, during their reading session. On Tuesday, October 6, 2015, he read to children at iPrep Academy in downtown Miami as part of the United Way program. CARL JUSTE

David Carson dons his Panama hat, pulls out a copy of Rumble in the Jungle and crayons, and sits before a rapt audience of two.

Carson, a real estate broker in Midtown, may be making a profound life-altering difference for the preschoolers he meets today.

Carson, 24, is a ReadingPal, a United Way volunteer in a program by which professionals from the community take time out of their schedules to read selected books to preschoolers to help enhance their literary skills and prepare them for kindergarten.

The United Way’s ReadingPals program, now in its fourth year and still looking for volunteers and materials, fans out to 17 schools and 30 classrooms. Volunteers, like Carson, commit to reading to the children on their turf twice a week for 30-minute periods from September to May. Students who take part — always two children per reader — are selected by their teachers, who have determined that they need that extra push to keep up with their classmates.

The reasons can vary. Perhaps the children lack proficiency in English. Sometimes their social skills aren’t as fully developed as those of their peers. Or they need a vocabulary boost.

Pre-K teacher Elizabeth Hernandez surveys her classes at Miami’s iPrep Academy each year and selects students she thinks would benefit from the attention of a volunteer reader.

The goal, she says, “is to help them transition to kindergarten” on equal footing. “The kids love working with him,” she says of Carson.

As Sophia Martinez-Henao, 4, and Diego Munoz, 4, work nearby with Carson for 30 minutes, Hernandez’s class continues with its daily activities. Carson reads from Rumble in the Jungle, a collection of poems and stories about animals, and uses the crayons to help Sophia and Diego match and identify words and colors. The two children then return to the classroom and are integrated into the ongoing activities.

“We have found that those kids, when there is an exam at the end of the school year, they are doing just as well as their classmates even though they were needing the extra help,” says Yanet Obarrio-Sanchez, a spokeswoman for United Way.

According to David Lawrence Jr., nationally known children’s advocate and chair of The Children’s Movement, such initiatives are important.

The early years are in fact the most critical years. Language development is vital in the first 18 months of a child’s life.

David Lawrence Jr., chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida.

“The early years are in fact the most critical years,” he said. “Language development, we know from a major Stanford University study, is vital in the first 18 months of a child’s life. Eighty-five percent of a child’s brain growth occurs by the age of 3. People learn all their lives, and should, but the windows for learning are especially critical in these first several years of life. Get those years right, and chances are children will have momentum all through school and life. It’s vital to remember that nothing is more important than a caring, knowledgeable, nurturing and loving parent.”

Carson, single and not a parent, says the experience he is getting as a second-year volunteer with ReadingPals has been personally enriching.

“I have three younger siblings so part of my skill set comes from that. But with the two 4-year-olds, I do as much as I can to accommodate their learning style. Whatever gets the best results — at this point, verbal communication from them — what I can do to get them the most excited is a win for me.

“As much time as you can spend with children, the better you are for it,” Carson said. “You can take a student who has never really spoken English before and just by being enthused yourself and taking their finger and pointing at words as you’re reading to them [you] can help early learners make serious progress.”

The United Way, which partnered with Books & Books on a community book drive to ensure that the children had take-home books, cites studies that reveal reading proficiency by third grade proves a critical indicator of high school graduation. A child who can’t read at grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate from high school than a child who is proficient at that time.

Lawrence, also a retired Miami Herald publisher, notes that this is an ongoing concern.

If 100 children leave first grade as poor or non-existent readers, 88 of them are in similar shape at the end of fourth grade.

“Thirty percent of children start school significantly behind. Painfully and sadly, most of these children fall further behind. Indeed, we know from the national research that if 100 children leave first grade as poor or non-existent readers, 88 of them are in similar shape at the end of fourth grade,” Lawrence said.

For ReadingPals, and similar programs like Miami’s Read2Succeed, which provides academic and literacy enrichment services, it takes organization and volunteers to move the needle.

“For people like myself who have full-time jobs, a lot of times we would love to be philanthropically involved as long as it’s not a burden and don’t have to bear the organizational cost of it,” Carson said. “The way it’s been with ReadingPals, since I got involved, it’s ridiculously easy for me to help and, I think, to make a huge impact. All the planning and work they do on the back end makes it easy for people like me to make an impact on the front end.”

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

Getting involved

The United Way’s ReadingPals program is still looking for volunteers and help with book drives. Call 305-646-7021 or visit www.unitedwaymiami.org/readingpals.

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