There are dozens of volunteer programs in Lowcountry schools, but one of the standouts is Charleston Book Buddies.

How to help

Charleston Book Buddies still has 54 students who need help, but it doesn’t have enough tutors to serve them.The nonprofit is looking for volunteers who are willing to help on a weekly basis.Sign up at or call Outreach Coordinator Jenna Carrigan at 860-3915.

It’s more strategic than most. Volunteers work one-on-one with weak readers, and tutors receive individualized lesson plans to address students’ deficiencies.

It’s one of the few programs that measures its success. Ninety-four percent of its students who were reading at least one grade level behind their peers last year were on-grade level by the end of the school year, according to Book Buddies.

Its leaders ask school district officials what they need, and they adjust their program accordingly. Book Buddies expanded this year to include more grades where schools weren’t offering as much support.

“That is the Mercedes-Benz of partnerships,” said school Superintendent Nancy McGinley. “It’s not just random acts of kindness or random reading to students. This is strategic volunteerism, which means it’s moving students forward. I can’t say enough positive about that program.”

Literacy is Charleston schools’ No. 1 priority, and the district relies on this program. The district has literacy academies for its worst readers, and Book Buddies has filled in the gaps for struggling students who still need extra help.

Book Buddies launched in spring 2009 with first graders in two high-poverty Charleston schools, and it’s been growing since then.

This year, it will more than triple the number of students it serves to 340, and it’s expanding into two more schools, for a total of eight. It’s also upping its volunteers, from 200 to 600.

Its goal is to serve all high-poverty elementary schools in Charleston and to expand into Berkeley and Dorchester schools.

To make that happen, Executive Director Kecia Greenho said the nonprofit is looking at ways to build capacity. It’s in a trial year of a partnership with Reading Partners, a California-based nonprofit known for literacy intervention, and it has provided customized lesson plans for students. It takes into account students’ strengths and weaknesses, and it can be adjusted.

That’s what happened when tutor Barbara Navarro noticed during one session that her student, fourth-grader Kayla Williams, was having a hard time understanding cause and effect. She told her site coordinator about the issue, and the next session, Navarro and Williams spent more time practicing it.

After that, Navarro said Williams got it and they moved on to the next skill.

“It was great to see her confidently complete the work and get caught up,” said Navarro, a first-year Book Buddies volunteer.

Volunteers such as Navarro seem pleased with the design of Book Buddies, saying they like its structure and they can see students’ progress.

“It just works beautifully,” she said. “It’s so easy to come in as a volunteer.”

Students seem to like it, too. Chicora School of Communications fifth-grader Brenda Garcia read poetry on Thursday with tutor Sue Johnson.

“It’s fun,” Garcia said with a smile afterward. “It lets me practice my reading.”