Reading program benefits pre-K students and middle-schoolers

Westview Middle School student Jairell Hamilton reads “Goodnight Moon” to 4-year-old Head Start students Makyia Carr (left) and Londynn Halley on Thursday at Westview Primary. Buy this photo

GOOSE CREEK — The scene in Shawn Blunt’s Head Start class at Westview Primary School might not appear all that unusual at first.

All around the room, youngsters are paired off with students from nearby Westview Middle School, reading books, asking questions, sharing stories. In fact, the scene will be repeated several times that morning in several 3- and 4-year-old classes throughout not only the school, but also the district.

This is not just a community service project. This is service learning.

“There is a distinction in that, with community service, there’s not necessarily learning going on,” said Berkeley County School District Special Education Coordinator Cheryl Belcher. “In this kind of project, there is a two-way street. The kids that are providing the service learn and get something out of it, and the kids that are receiving the service learn, so it’s a unique partnership.”

The program is “Read it! Leave it!” and it was launched last month in six middle schools and six elementary schools throughout the district.

It involves having the older students, many of whom struggle academically, read to the younger ones. The books, chosen with help from the South Carolina Center for Children’s Books and Literacy, are then left in the classrooms.

“We leave the books to plant a seed so that those children will then continue to go back throughout the year to read them,” said district Director of Programs for Students with Disabilities Kelly Wulf.

So far, educators say, it has been a win-win for all involved.

“The reason we got into service learning was to target middle schools,” Wulf said. “We know that middle school students who are academically challenged start to disengage. It’s kind of a sneaky way to get kids to read, but it’s also providing a service to the Head Start children.”

The idea came from research on dropout prevention, she said.

“This is the group of kids that we can lose when they get to high school, so we have got to engage them in the learning process,” she said. “The power of it is that we’re taking kids that struggle with reading and they feel so good about going in and reading to these young children.”

The program goes beyond the few minutes the middle-schoolers spend with the early childhood students every other week.

“Older children reading to younger children in schools is not really anything new,” Belcher said. “We’ve had those kinds of partnerships for years. What’s different is that we are taking the time on the front end to really prepare the students so that they can step into that teaching role and they understand the responsibility that goes with it.”

The older students spend time in their own classrooms trying out books — sometimes several books — to find the “right” one to share with the youngsters. They learn about asking questions to test comprehension and redirecting them when they lose interest in the books.

“The unique thing about this project is that it goes from pre-literacy all the way to teaching parenting skills,” Belcher said.

The younger students also benefit from the interaction, and Wulf hopes it will have long-reaching effects.

“We know the children sitting in Head Start are also at risk,” Wulf said. “If we don’t get in there and intervene with them, they could eventually end up with us.”

Additionally, the program, which is funded by a grant from the state Department of Education, has helped shore up libraries in the Head Start classrooms.

Before Berkeley County won a grant in 2011 to run Head Start in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, the programs were run by other organizations, most off site from public schools.

“If there were any books that came (from the former Head Start programs), they were old and the covers were torn,” said Westview Primary Principal Luci Carter. “We didn’t really have good libraries for the classrooms. This was an opportunity to put books into those classrooms that are classics, that were award-winners, that the children are going to enjoy sitting down and listening to over and over.”

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