READ Alabama undergoes expansion, adds three schools

READ Alabama began its second year by adding three new schools to its volunteer focus and has a satellite program in progress, with a total expansion to six schools in the program in the near future.

“We are here for the good things -- football, tailgating, etc. -- but we are also here to help improve the negative things…in our case, the illiteracy rate in Tuscaloosa,” said Colby Leopard, director and founder of READ Alabama (Readiness, Education and Development).

The group held its second information meeting this Monday to train new volunteers.

Students involved will travel to one of the three elementary schools -- Holt Elementary, Cottondale Elementary and Davis-Emerson Elementary -- one day a week for about an hour and a half.

The students are paired with an elementary age child with reading difficulties. The pairs work together throughout the semester on reading comprehension and speed.

“The tornado really emphasized the importance of the relationship between our school and our community,” said Lena Oshinskie, executive secretary of the group. ”We encourage all years of students to participate in this program.”

The group plans to hold another set of information sessions in the middle of the semester for more students who want to become involved.

The volunteers can be students of any class standing, but the majority of the volunteers tend to be freshmen, due to the advertising at Honors College Assembly and in dorms on campus.

“During Alabama Action last year, I served as a student leader,” Leopard said. “I got to know the librarians well, and they told me that 10 percent of their sixth, seventh and eighth grade students were reading three grade levels below their grade level.”

Leopard began to brainstorm possible solutions to Tuscaloosa's illiteracy rate, and with the help of the program’s advisor, Kathryn Merritt, READ Alabama began its pilot through the Honors College on Nov. 5, 2010.

The program began with about 37 volunteers working with around 60 students at Hillcrest Elementary School, where Leopard had worked with Alabama Action.

“We show the community that as students, we care about them, and volunteering is enriching for the students involved as well,” Leopard said.

The group planned to start a satellite program in Perry County last May, before the April 27 tornado hit Tuscaloosa.

This fall, the satellite program will be put into action, with trained volunteers sent out to Perry County to train high school students to do the same reading activities in local elementary schools.

Katherine Owen, student director of recruitment, tries to go to the schools between two to three days a week.

“I have always worked with middle-school age children,” Owen said. “Last year, I grew close to one of the students I read with. Besides reading, we would discuss her school life and her friends and talk about the issues she was having.”

The illiteracy rate of adults is very high in Tuscaloosa, as well.

“At the moment, this program only helps children, but it is still in a very early stage and definitely could expand to help increase adult literacy as well,” Oshinskie said. “As soon as we have the resources to do that, I could see it happening.”

Students can become involved by sending an email to readala@gmail.com.

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