School may be out for the day, but one classroom at Oliver Elementary is still packed. Fourteen second-grade students sit in two rows of chairs. Along the back walls sit parents, grandparents, siblings and another support group: reading mentors for each student.
When the site director for the after-school program calls students up to the front of the class, their personal reading mentors stand next to them. As the regular school year ends, this class of students is also graduating from a year-long reading program.
Oliver Elementary is one of 13 sites where the Start The Adventure In Reading (STAIR) program operated during the 2017-2018 school year. STAIR partnered with 13 Birmingham City Schools and served 200 students across the Birmingham community. An after-school reading program, STAIR works with second-grade students who are reading below their grade level, offering one-on-one tutoring to help them develop their literacy skills.
As STAIR’s executive director, Liz Edwards knows the importance of their work. “For students to be able to graduate on time, one of the key predictors is reading on grade level by end of third grade,” Edwards said. “Up until the third grade, students are learning to read, but from third grade on they’re expected to be able to read to learn. For students who aren’t reading at grade level, they just fall further and further behind.”
If students don’t successfully navigate this critical transition point, they are four times less likely to graduate from high school. If they also happen to come from an underserved neighborhood, they are about 12 times less likely to graduate, she says.
“It’s really important that we catch these students while they still have the opportunity to catch up,” Edwards said.
Each student enrolled in the STAIR program meets with a tutor twice a week for an hour-and-a-half per day to work on their literacy skills. A reading mentor volunteering his or her time is behind every student success. “Our program wouldn’t be possible without our tutors,” said Edwards. Most students have two tutors for the school year, one for each of the two days per week that STAIR operates. This means that the time commitment to volunteer is low but the impact on participating students is great.
STAIR works with elementary school principals and second-grade teachers to identify students who may be reading below grade level and might benefit form STAIR’s programming.
“Most of these students just need a little extra attention,” said Edwards. “Our tutors are able to give their undivided attention to one student, two afternoons a week, which has such great value.”
Because STAIR is a one-on-one program, students can work at their own pace and focus on the things they struggle with individually, an opportunity that can be hard to come by in a full classroom.
Graduation day is an opportunity for a student’s entire support system — family, teachers, STAIR tutors and school administrators — to gather to celebrate the student’s successes. As each name is called, the soon-to-be third-graders come to the front of the classroom accompanied by their tutors. Each tutor speaks for a few minutes about the student’s progress throughout the year. Many tutors also mention the effect their students have had on the tutors’ own lives.
“This is an opportunity to celebrate a student’s hard work, and a chance to hear the hopes and dreams that their tutors have for them after they’ve worked for them over the course of the year and really formed a really close relationship,” Edwards said. “It’s fun for parents to hear and meet the folks that they’ve heard their kids talking about all year, and tutors get to meet siblings or grandparents that they’ve heard about. It’s just a way to close the whole circle.”
As STAIR begins to plan for the 2018-19 school year, it is looking for tutors. For more information about joining the STAIR team as a volunteer tutor, please visit the website.