Smart reading

A world of opportunity

The old computer storage room at Parkdale Elementary School has been cleaned out and turned into a reading room. It looks right smart. In fact, it is SMART.

It's the new home of SMART (Start Making a Reader Today), a state-wide program that's making its debut in Hood River County this year at Parkdale Elementary.

"We got all the stuff cleared out," said Jenni Donahue, program coordinator, as she looked around the cozy room. It's an understatement that says nothing about the hectic last two months she's spent trying to get the program off the ground.

Donahue, who has one child of her own at the school (and another in middle school), was contacted by principal Pat Echanis in November about heading up the program. She hesitated only briefly before plunging in, and she's never looked back.

SMART was started in 1992 by former governor Neil Goldschmidt under the auspices of the Oregon Children's Foundation (OCF). Goldschmidt founded the organization after he learned that one out of four kindergartners enters elementary school two or more years behind in language development. Studies have shown that failure to read competently by the third grade increases chances that a student will drop out of high school, have to deal with an early pregnancy or use drugs.

The SMART program focuses on children in kindergarten through third grades in low-income communities. Volunteers are paired with students for scheduled reading sessions twice a week. The program provides age-appropriate books, and also gives each student reader two new books a month to take home and keep.

The SMART program is up and running in 250 schools in 22 Oregon counties. Parkdale Elementary is one of about 40 schools to start the program this year. Mid-Valley Elementary in Odell also is getting the program off the ground this month.

Echanis had been interested in the SMART program for some time. He got the ball rolling last fall when he connected with SMART organizers in Portland. After talking to his staff, he invited organizers to the school to present the logistics of the program.

"There was 100 percent agreement that we wanted to participate," Echanis said. All SMART programs are run by coordinator who is paid nominally by OCF.

"Jenni's name popped into my head the first time I thought about it," Echanis said. "The key to the program is having a good coordinator and we're really lucky to have Jenni."

Donahue's main task, aside from clearing out a space at the school to house the SMART books and reading areas, was recruiting volunteers to participate. She picked up the telephone and called more than 100 community members.

"At first it was really hard to find people," she said. "Then all of a sudden people started saying yes." She now has 23 adult SMART volunteers. Each comes to the school one day a week and reads to two students in separate half-hour sessions.

Donahue also met with teachers who recommended students for the program.

"Important criteria are kids who need help learning to read at grade level, or kids who a teacher feels would really blossom with a one-on-one relationship" with an adult volunteer, Donahue explained. "The whole purpose of SMART is to bring kids up to grade level in reading. That's the goal."

Donahue and Echanis are starting the program small with the intention of building on it over time. There are about three students from each K-3 classroom involved so far.

Last week volunteer Florence Ames met with one of her SMART students, second-grader Alonso Galvan. Alonso picked out a book about bats from one of the shelves. He sat next to Ames at a table and read out loud. When he came to a difficult word, Ames helped him with it. After a while, they switched and Ames read to him as he turned the pages.

Once, his gaze wandered to a nearby shelf with some breakable pottery on it. As Ames read on, he silently mouthed the words of a sign on the shelf, "Do not touch please," then looked back to the bat book.

"Each adult and child kind of evolves their own method," Donahue said. "It's only the third week (of the program) but they're developing pretty tight relationships."

Most of the adult volunteers feel strongly about helping kids learn to read better.

"Everything hinges on a kid being able to read and read competently," said volunteer Rhonda Fischer. "If they can read, you open up a world of opportunities for them."

Echanis hopes to expand the program next year. "As we add more volunteers, we can add more kids," he said. "How it grows depends on how many volunteers we can recruit." He added that, despite starting the program mid-year, Donahue and the school's teachers have made a successful launch of SMART at Parkdale Elementary.

"We're excited about it and the kids are excited about it," he said.

Donahue agrees. "It's a great program," she said. "Our job is to help kids enjoy books. We want them to love reading."

For information on SMART, or to volunteer, call Pat Echanis at Parkdale Elementary School, 352-6255, or Jenni Donahue at 352-7867.

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