Reading program goes digital

Students participated in a virtual pilot program this summer.
PHOTO: Philly Reading Coaches

Lexi Gorel did not have a background in education or literacy when she signed up to read to Philadelphia schoolchildren two years ago.

She was looking for a community service opportunity through her college, St. Joseph’s University, and landed on Philly Reading Coaches, a city program where volunteers read with children one-on-one for at least an hour a week.

Gorel, 21, now a senior at St. Joe’s, loved it so much that she has become a sort-of ambassador for the program, recruiting other students.

“It’s really fun to be able to create an unlikely friendship with a kid that I would never usually have met,” Gorel, a Reading native, said. “I really love creating the bond and being someone that the student could look up to.”

Philly Reading Coaches has, like everything, been impacted by the novel coronavirus.

Typically, readers and students meet at schools, recreation centers, libraries and other public buildings, but, next month, PRC is rolling out a new virtual format.

The program, which targets children in kindergarten through third grade, aims to build confidence in students struggling to read and motivate them to pick up books.

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“In March, when everything started to shut down, we just felt like it was such an abrupt stop to the program, and we knew that the kids who needed it the most were now really going to suffer because they had no support,” said Johniece Ray, who directs PRC. “There was no school.”

Students, who participate in two 1-hour sessions a week, will be using the Webex platform to read along with the volunteers.

Over the summer, Ray instituted a pilot program with 40 schoolchildren featuring 30-minute time slots. The initiative was successful, and parents asked to have longer sessions.

“We saw that students were genuinely engaged over a digital format,” Ray said. “We were worried that it would take away from some of the excitement and fun of the program, but we were wrong. Kids still enjoyed it.”

Previously, students brought home books after each session to assemble their own 25-volume library. This year, those books will be mailed out on a monthly basis, and students will receive a log-in for a website with thousands of children’s titles.

Registration is open for volunteers and children, with slots still available for families. Enrollment continues on a rolling basis for both groups through the first week of December.

Volunteer interest has skyrocketed, Ray said. About 375 people had signed up as of last week, and PRC has almost reached its goal.

“This is the most volunteers that we’ve had come through before the launch of the program in all of our years of running it,” she said.

Anyone can volunteer, as long as they are at least 14 years old and can pass mandatory background checks to work with children.

Participants go through a short training which teaches them how to interact with the students; tips on keeping them engaged; how to check if the child is comprehending the story; and other information.

Volunteers have to commit to an hour a week, though they can give more of their time. Sessions are held during after-school hours, sometime between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays.

Families who live in Philadelphia and send their child to any school are eligible for the program. Ray said PRC is hoping to serve a minimum of 200 students.

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One of PRC’s goals is to help schoolchildren read at grade level by fourth grade, which coincides with the citywide Ready By 4th campaign. The initiative was formed several years ago to improve a troubling metric — that about 60% of Philadelphia students entering fourth grade struggle to read.

Officials and education experts view fourth grade as a key benchmark.

“It’s this switch that happens between third and fourth grade where students go from learning how to read to needing to know how to read to learn,” Ray said.

Gorel, who is studying food marketing and entrepreneurship, believes reading is essential for a child’s future in education, and she has become passionate about youth literacy in Philadelphia.

She said she has witnessed how children are able to grow during the one-on-one reading sessions.

“It’s really cool to see how they progress throughout the semester or maybe even the year, if I get the chance to read with them for the entire year,” Gorel said.

For more information about PRC, including how to enroll a student or volunteer, go to http://ost.phila.gov/philly-reading-coaches/.

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