‘Read to Succeed’ improves kids’ reading scores — and volunteers love it, too

It’s a Thursday afternoon at Cloud Elementary School in Wichita, and 9-year-old DJ Allen is reading a book about wolves.

“Do you think wolves and dogs look alike?” hey reads “They are both from a family of animals called canines…”

DJ knows how to read, but he’s still learning how to sound words out. Sometimes he rushes and makes mistakes.

Nine-year-old DJ Allen, a third-grader at Cloud Elementary School, loves to read books about animals.

But the best way to get better is to practice, so once a week we sit down side-by-side in a quiet classroom. DJ reads aloud — any book he chooses, which usually features animals or dinosaurs — and I listen.

It’s part of a program called Read to Succeed, an initiative launched by the United Way’s Women United. The program pairs third-graders with volunteers from the community who serve as reading coaches.

Third grade is a critical benchmark for reading. It’s when kids shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by third grade can struggle to catch up. They’re four times more likely to eventually drop out of school.

Teachers test students on a variety of reading skills, from comprehension to out-loud fluency. At 21 elementary schools in Wichita, third-graders who score at the lower end of grade level or just under are matched with Read to Succeed volunteers in hopes of raising their reading fluency.

“It gives them that one-on-one practice, and it also gives them that mentorship and that love of reading,” said Heather Crump, a former third-grade teacher who coordinates the program for the United Way.

“This allows the students to have a little more control over what they’re reading and really foster that love of reading. So if they are a reluctant reader, then it helps grow their love of reading. And then, of course, the skills will come.”

It does make a difference. Before Read to Succeed was put on hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, data collected by Women United showed that students in the program improved their reading fluency at a faster rate than the average third-grader.

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A Read to Succeed volunteer and third-grader read at College Hill Elementary in Wichita.

David Larson, who coordinates the program at Cloud Elementary, says it’s about more than just books. Students also benefit from meeting regularly with an adult who gets to know and care about them.

“I love to see when the adults come and share that joy of reading with students,” Larson said. “It starts to come alive, and they start not only learning to love to read more, but they build a relationship with a positive adult.”

More than half of Wichita third-graders aren’t reading on grade level. The district is working with Women United to expand Read to Succeed into second grade in hopes of making an even greater impact.

But doing that takes volunteers. Interested adults should contact United Way to get more information.

“Sometimes people think you have to have all this extra background,” Larson said.
“If you have a heart in your chest and a brain in your head, then you qualify. If you want kids to be successful, then you’re qualified.”

After a background check, new volunteers get training on reading strategies and how to make the most of their mentoring time. Then they can select a school and time slot that works best for them.

Several Wichita-area businesses, including Intrust Bank, Textron Aviation, Delta Dental and Cornejo & Sons, encourage their employees to be part of the program, allowing them time each week to drive to a school and meet with their reading buddies.

“Every child is one caring adult away from a success story,” said Crump with the United Way. “And they could be that for a kid in a school that’s a reluctant reader or that’s just needing a little extra practice.”

I started volunteering as a reading coach about five years ago. This school year, DJ and I meet every Thursday afternoon, and I look forward to our time together. It leaves me feeling inspired and hopeful about the benefits of volunteering.

“We couldn’t do this without volunteers and the community support,” Crump said. “When we all work together, the community is the one that wins, you know? The kids win.”

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