The Christmas-themed adventures of a mischievous mouse dominated the discussion between kindergartner Ah'lizah Robinson and her reading tutor Meredith Breeden on their last visit before winter break.
The pair read aloud the book "If you take a mouse to the movies," while Breeden asked Robinson questions about what the mouse was doing.
Robinson took it all in before declaring, "I like the decorations!"
Robinson is one of 52 students at Chicora Elementary School in North Charleston enrolled in Reading Partners Charleston, a nonprofit organization that provides reading tutors at 11 Charleston County elementary schools to help students who are reading below grade level.
The nonprofit has about 300 active volunteers serving 300 students, but Executive Director Kecia Greenho said the group is looking to recruit another 250 to 500 more volunteers to help up to another 300 students this school year.
Cierra Rogers, Reading Partners site coordinator at Chicora, said there are 15 students on a waiting list at that school where some volunteers are working with three or four students in a single day to make sure the most at-risk students are getting help.
"The need is much greater than what we're able to provide right now," Greenho said.
Volunteers are asked to make a minimum commitment of one hour per week for at least a semester, Greenho said. Students in the Reading Partners program work with a tutor twice a week using a targeted curriculum aimed at helping them improve their reading.
Literacy remains a challenge for many Charleston County students. In the spring of 2013, 12.4 percent of students in grades 3-8 were reading below grade level. A total of 12.7 percent of students who entered the ninth grade in August were reading at or below a fourth-grade level.
Students are referred to Reading Partners based on their grades, standardized test scores or classroom performance. Greenho said Reading Partners then does its own pretesting to assess students' reading abilities.
"We identify and work with the students we know if someone doesn't work with one-on-one, they're just going to slip further and further behind," she said.
The structured curriculum is progressive, Rogers said, with specialized lessons targeting emerging readers in kindergarten, beginning readers in first and second grade and then reading comprehension in grades 3-5. Lessons for emerging readers focus on learning the alphabet and the sound each letter makes, while exercises for older readers might focus on enunciation and reading fluency or building vocabulary and reading comprehension.
"Our curriculum is personalized based on the child's reading level," Rogers said. "Each lesson plan caters to the child's needs."
The group is pushing for more volunteers now, Greenho said, to reach as many students as possible before the end of the school year.
"If we can get them in January we can catch them up by the end of the year," Greenho said.
Breeden said this is her third year volunteering with Reading Partners, but that it's her first time working with a kindergartner. The experience of working with a new reader like Robinson and watching her progress has been really rewarding, Breeden said.
"She enjoys reading now," Breeden said.
Tutor Sarah Derreberry, who volunteers with the same class as Breeden, said she's seen a similar improvement with her student, kindergartner Amar Tindall, who went from only knowing about five letters in August to knowing 18 by winter break.
"My favorite letter is Z," Tindall said, adding that he likes zebras.
As someone who loves reading, Derreberry said she decided to volunteer with Reading Partners for the first time this year with the hope of sharing that passion.
"I wanted to give a student who may not have that at-home reading support a little at-school support, and help them know the same joy of reading that I have," she said.