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.
A 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.