Reading One on One

by y Marlene Sokol, Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA – Ever so gently, their voices travel.

“Sound it out. Sound it out.”

Long before the sun is even up, children in the Bailey Elementary School media center are sitting in corners, lying on rugs and gathering around tables while teenagers huddle across from them over booklets and pamphlets.

Tuesday morning at 7:10 a.m. is when Stephanie Wright’s second graders come early for one-on-one sessions with the Teen Trendsetters, a service club at the high school next door, Strawberry Crest.

Government teacher Kendall Nickerson sponsors this group of International Baccalaureate students who are testing their skills as teachers.

“All of my kids look forward to coming here every Tuesday morning,” said Wright. “They are really modeling that you can learn so much from a book.”

Teen Trendsetters gets its structure and materials from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, founded more than 25 years ago by the former First Lady, who had a passion for books.

Clubs also exist at Jefferson High School, where students help out at Roland Park K-8; and at Progress Village Middle, which assists Lamb Elementary.

Thirty Strawberry Crest students are in the Dover group, tutoring and mentoring 18 second graders.

The younger children get books and materials to take home. They commit to reading with their parents.

They find role models in the older students, who somehow manage to coax those who are slouching or lying down to focus on the printed pages.

“It’s perfect, because I know the need,” said Nickerson, who formed the club this year following a more informal relationship between some of the IB students and her own son’s class at Bailey.

“Tuesday is a long day, but it’s become my favorite day in the work week.”

Tutors include Rafael Mercado, 16, who moved with his family to the mainland United States as a third grader from Puerto Rico. Rafael’s first language was Spanish. His mother is a bilingual classroom assistant at Strawberry Crest. In addition to the mentoring work, Rafael acts as a translator when teachers need to call parents who speak only Spanish.

He had never considered becoming a teaching, and still has his sights set on a career in international business after college.

But the tutoring experience has helped him grow.

“I feel like it’s made me more patient with people who aren’t really as educated as I am, or don’t quite understand things,” Rafael said. “To be more respectful to people I talk to.”

His student is 7-year-old Luis Longoria, a child of Mexican heritage who likes Pokemon, Fortnite and soccer. “All the regular kid stuff,” Rafael said.

When the classes began, Luis showed skill at recognizing full sentences and sounding out words phonetically. But he would get frustrated with words that were long or unfamiliar, or with silent letters.

Rafael learned to get Luis through the rough patches by finding synonyms for the new words and having him use them in sentences to build his vocabulary.

The tutors get training materials with tips and strategies. Each session begins with simple conversation, small talk about the student’s life.

“And we give them breaks now and then so they don’t get overwhelmed,” Rafael said.

Bailey, like nearly every school in Hillsborough County, has large numbers of students who are below the state passing level on the Florida Standards Assessments. Twenty-four percent are in the lowest of five proficiency levels, a number almost equal to the district’s.

The school district has a literacy work group that has been meeting all school year, looking for ways to boost proficiency. A consultant will likely be hired soon for a top-to-bottom audit of the way the district schools teach reading and writing.

The Bush foundation cites a controlled study from the University of Maine that found nearly half the recipients of Teen Trendsetters mentoring – who started the program at least half a year behind in reading – advanced their reading skills an entire grade level during just a few months.

Scott Valdez, the principal at Bailey, said the activity just makes sense.

“If I was a kid, if a high school kid paid attention to me,” he said, “it would make my day.”

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