'Great By Eight' Aims to Help Kids Catch Up

Volunteers at Harvest Ridge Elementary work one on one with kids to get them on track in reading.

Twice a week, LaDonna Darks, 66, gets to help kindergartners at Harvest Ridge Elementary School learn to do her favorite thing: reading. 

"If you can't read, you can't dream and you don't know what's out there," she said.

Darks, who retired from working as a nurse anesthetist about a year and a half ago, volunteers for a new reading intervention program in the Francis Howell School District aimed at getting students caught up in reading by the time they are 8 years old. 

recent research study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found that students in third grade with low reading proficiency are more likely to become high school dropouts. 

"We have a lot of children who don't know beginning sounds, who don't recognize letters," Mary Jo Griffin, director of early childhood for the district, said. "We're trying to get volunteers to help kids recognize letters so they don't get behind. We want kids to hit schools ready to go." 

The Great by 8 program started at Harvest Ridge, Central, Becky David and Independence elementary schools this fall. It's set to begin at Fairmount and Warren elementary schools this quarter. 

For now, the program is being piloted in kindergarten. Literacy coaches in elementary schools typically don't start working with students who are struggling until first grade. Great by 8 allows teachers to identify kindergartners who are behind and help get them caught up to their peers. 

Students are identified for the program based on their scores on a universal screening test and are matched with volunteers. There are 27 kindergarten students participating in the Great by 8 program at Harvest Ridge this year. 

"Children in my classroom have seen remarkable progress with it," said Melissa Barth, a kindergarten teacher at Harvest Ridge Elementary School. "It's helping them to be more successful."

Volunteers spend 15 to 20 minutes with each child working on a variety of reading and literacy activities. Each session is tailored to each child's particular needs. 

The program has been started at a time when kindergarten students are being taught a more rigorous curriculum.

"We've raised the bar, but they are working very hard and accomplishing a lot," Barth said. "It's amazing to see."


Darks volunteers twice a week for the Great by 8 program, meeting with seven different students. 

At the start of the year, Darks began by helping students identify letters and what sound each letter makes. Soon, they learned that the letters and sounds make up words, she said. 

Darks said one boy with whom she worked identified the letters C-A-T, the sounds for each letter and then realized it spelled cat. 

"The reason we're doing this is so you can spell words," she told him. "The light bulb went on. It was so neat to see this. The child is doing wonderful now." 

How to Help

For more information on becoming a Great by 8 tutor, contact Francis Howell School District Central Administration at (636) 851-4045. Volunteers are asked to spend at least 20 minutes at a school, once a week. 

Two upcoming trainings are scheduled, one from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 20 and one from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. March 26. Volunteers must complete a background check and fill out other district forms. 

Jaycen Rigger February 20, 2013 at 02:15 PM
If this is true, it's a sad indictment of the parents of these children. Dark's efforts are commendable, but her comments are dumb: "If you can't read, you can't dream and you don't know what's out there," she said. Plent of people who can't read can dream, and many do actually know "what's out there." They're illiterate, not vegetative. Still, I suppose since she's teaching phonics I shouldn't be too hard on her. I didn't expect to find that part in the story. Harvest Ridge Elementary is in a solidly middle class area, but it's also part of the Francis Howell School District, so I'm really not surprised by anything I hear about it. This is the district that bought a $2M recreational and sports center last year, and complained the their budget was over by $2M. Huh. Go figure. My daughters went to school in that district for 1 year and then we moved. That was the year the district "miscounted the number of kindergarteners" and was over budget by $7M. Back then, I assumed there was some shady stuff going on, but considering they can't teach their own children to read, maybe the adults in that district can also make a collossal mistake when counting?
Jon Travis February 20, 2013 at 07:48 PM
Jacyen, I don't disagree with your dream comments, although I think she was talking more about using books as a way to discover the world around you. A little info on Harvest Ridge though. It is not solidly middle class. If you look at the demographic data on the DESE website, the free and reduced lunch recipients make up 41.5% of HR's population. This elementary school is fed by the district's highest concentration of apartments and the districts only mobile home parks. A large number of the homes are single parent homes. Studies have shown that more affluent families expose their children to more educational experiences, duh. Without the money, you end up needing programs like Great by 8. BTW, Ann says "Hi!" (That goes back to the days of working on the line).
Kalen Ponche February 20, 2013 at 11:59 PM
Hey Jaycen- I spent a long time interviewing LaDonna Darks- I think her point, and the point that maybe isn't clear just in that quote-- is that reading opens up a new world of information to kids. When they learn to read they can ask questions and learn about things that are far away. She talked a little bit about how reading about California prompted her to move there when she joined the Navy.


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