Jeremiah Newman moved his finger along a line of text and sounded the words aloud.
“The tornado was three-quarters of a mile wide, with wind that topped 200 miles per hour,” he read. “It swept away horses …”
“Wait, look at that one more time,” said Deanne Newland, seated next to him.
“Oh, houses!” Jeremiah corrected himself. “It swept away houses.”
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The third-grader continued reading the book, one in a series called “I Survived,” which recounts some of history’s scariest events. This one was about an EF-5 tornado that destroyed much of Joplin, Mo., in 2011.
“I’m really into learning about storms,” Jeremiah said. “I might be a forecaster when I grow up, or one of those guys that monitor the storms.”
Before he can do that, though, he will need to graduate from high school. And before that – right now, at Gardiner Elementary School in Wichita – he needs to make the critical leap from sounding out words to really understanding them, from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
Helping him and his classmates this spring are nearly two dozen women from United Way’s Women United, the Pando Initiative and First Wesleyan Church, who volunteer about once a week, meeting one-on-one with students to listen to them read.
“Studies show that kids who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade have a greater rate of dropping out of high school,” said Stephanie Turner, a third-grade teacher at Gardiner, near Southeast Boulevard and Mount Vernon in south Wichita.
“We have kids who have kind of mastered that decoding piece, and they’re working on their fluency, so this gives them an extra opportunity to practice.”
The new initiative is part of United Way of the Plains’ pledge to help one of Wichita’s most distressed areas – the neighborhoods around Wichita West High School.
The organization hopes to raise graduation rates and overall student achievement at West by attacking root-cause problems such as absenteeism and early childhood literacy.
Last fall, United Way of the Plains launched a public “Be There” initiative aimed at raising awareness of the importance of school attendance.
Around November, local members of Women United learned strategies for tutoring children in reading – how to help them select appropriate-level books, listen for intonation and expression, and ask questions to gauge how well they’re understanding what they read.
At Gardiner, where more than 90 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, teachers say they spend so much time with students who are well below grade level that they often can’t focus on those who are just shy of reading goals.
Turner, the third-grade teacher, said she paired some of those students with the Women United tutors and saw improvement almost immediately.
After six weeks, the students’ word-per-minute averages increased at a rate of about two words per week – double what teachers normally shoot for in third grade, Turner said. Students who read aloud with a tutor at least once a week for 30 minutes averaged a gain of 3.2 words per week, she said.
“To actually see those numbers is very impressive, and it just motivates us even more that this is something we need to try to do for our kids,” Turner said.
“They just really enjoy that one-on-one time with an adult, and they get to have a little bit of extra attention that is so positive for them.”
Helen Thomas, volunteer site contact and a reading interventionist at Gardiner, said the progress after just a few months has been “pretty astounding.”
“I love to read, but it never occurred to me that reading with a kid once a week could make that much difference,” Thomas said. “But it really has.”
Penny Olsen, manager of Women United, said the group chose third-grade reading as its volunteer initiative because “they saw this as something they could actually get their hands around.”
In June, volunteers and others will meet for a luncheon at Botanica to review end-of-the-year results and start working toward possibly expanding the program this fall. Officials calculate that 30 to 40 volunteers a day could accommodate nearly every child who needs extra reading help at seven elementary schools that feed into West High, Olsen said.
“Our long-term goal is every school in our coverage area,” she said. “But you have to start somewhere.”
Diane Iseman of Intrust Bank, a member of Women United, said she enjoys visiting Gardiner Elementary regularly to read with third-grader Karmon Wilson. One recent afternoon, the two sat in a cozy corner of the school library and read “Bandit,” a book about a black-and-white Shih Tzu puppy who is abandoned at a highway rest stop.
“I’m a real avid reader. I’m a mom. And I just know how important it is to have a child be able to read,” Iseman said.
“It makes them aware of life, of what’s going on around them. It makes them tuned in, connected, and all that’s going to make them want to come to school the next day. Then we do it all again, and then they’ll come one more day.”
Iseman said it takes about an hour to drive to Gardiner, read with Karmon and go back to work in downtown Wichita.
“What I bring back to the workplace, I think, is just a better sense of understanding about what’s really happening in our community,” she said.