A shout of joy echoes through Idylwild Elementary School’s media center every Thursday afternoon, as anywhere from 15 to 20 kids run into the room.
Fifteen minutes before the double doors burst open, Alexa Tierney, Holly Buss and the rest of Eastside High School’s ReadSquad are setting up shop. The two high schoolers and co-coordinators cultivate a passion for reading they’ve decided to pass on to the next generation.
ReadSquad, formerly known as Teen Trendsetters, is a Barbara Bush Foundation reading mentorship program for first, second and third graders who are reading half a year or more behind their grade level. It’s designed to foster a love and excitement for reading among the elementary schoolers by pairing them with a middle or high school reading buddy.
“It’s an amazing program,” said Jim Kuhn, the principal of Idylwild Elementary School. “You see the kids’ faces when they’re in here. The children absolutely love it.”
This is the first year the initiative is under the name ReadSquad.
The 20-week program helps transition children from learning to read to reading to learn, said Kelley Kostamo, the supervisor of volunteers and partners for Alachua County Public Schools.
This school year, the program received new reading materials: new books for the kids and mentor guides for the high schoolers. The students get placed into categories with different book levels after taking reading comprehension tests. Their mentors receive instructions on how to teach them depending on how much help they need.
Throughout the year, the books get tougher, pushing kids to read at higher levels.
“As mentors, we try not to give them the answers right away,” Tierney said. “We try to teach them strategies. Sound it out, act it out with them.”
In Alachua County, Eastside and Buchholz are the two high schools participating in the program. Twenty-two volunteers from Eastside help at Idylwild and about 15 from Buchholz go to Terwilliger Elementary School.
Each ReadSquad consists of about 15 kids, the required number for the program to exist.
To Tierney’s and Buss’s surprise, the program has brought in more students this year than last year, although it’s no longer free.
Last year, through a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, after-school care at Idylwild was free, making Teen Trendsetters free. This year, no longer under the grant, ReadSquad is only available to those who pay for after-school care.
According to the Florida Department of Education, 50% of third graders in Alachua County received an achievement level 3 or above on their English Language Arts scores for the Florida Standards Assessment. That’s three percentage points below the state average and the lowest it’s been since the beginning of FSA testing. The FSA replaced the FCAT, another statewide testing system, seven years ago.
Kostamo said this program is one of many strategies to help solve this problem.
For some kids in ReadSquad, focusing on reading is easy. For others, there are challenges.
Buss said that some students in the lower-level reading group will start guessing words if they don’t recognize them right away and associate them with a word they’ve seen before.
“When we try to spell it out with them and put the sounds together, some kids can’t do that,” she said. “That’s their way of trying to read, if they recognize it, they recognize it, if they don’t, they try and see what works.”
Others struggle to pay attention to what their mentors try to teach them. Some don’t want to listen.
When the teenage mentors see a child who won’t engage with reading at all, they steer the lesson toward reading games or simply talking to the student.
“If they’re really not interested, trying to force them to read isn’t going to help with their perceptions of reading,” Buss said. “They’re not going to want to read anymore.”
Instead, the mentors play reading games, pull out flashcards, practice sight words or ask the kids about their day. Their goal is to bring the fun back, build social skills and tie in other important aspects that aren’t necessarily reading-based.
In one of many attempts to calm down children with extra energy, Tierney has held and partaken in a pushup contest. Any fun activity to get them moving and calm down a bit, they’ll do.
Principal Kuhn said the goal for the future is expanding ReadSquad to every school in the county.
“It is a personal connection and a personal one-on-one with the kid that they might not get within the classroom,” Buss said. “I do think that if it was expanded some more in this county we would see some improvement in reading skills, but it might be harder to do because it is one-on-one.”
As of now, ReadSquad in Alachua County has no data showing an increase in reading scores among elementary schoolers.
Principal Kuhn said the school is not able to measure results because the program has only been up for a month.
He said that by the end of the year they’ll have the results of how these students did compared to those who didn’t attend.