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Sharing a love of literature

by Felisha Butler | March 28, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Dionne Jackson, Kanesha Adams, and Sherra Bennett have their photo taken at the Garland County Library. - Photo by Grace Brown of The Sentinel-Record

Since 2012, AR Kids Read, a literacy nonprofit, has provided trained tutors to students in first through fifth grade in Pulaski County who read below grade level once a week in 30-minute increments. For the 2020-2021 school year, the organization branched out and now services Pine Bluff School District in Jefferson County, Mayflower School District in Faulkner County and Oaklawn STEM Magnet in Garland County with plans to extend to two other elementary schools in the county.

Executive Director Dionne Jackson and Program Director Sherra Bennett are just two of the women-only team of AR Kids Read. Before coming on board as executive director in May 2019, Dr. Jackson was a teacher, professor and higher education administrator while Bennett arrived to the nonprofit in October 2020 after working as program consultant in South Africa and director of operations at an elementary school in Nashville, Tenn.

"We serve 29 schools in districts across those four counties," Jackson said. "Then we serve two after-school programs here in Little Rock. We recruit volunteers in our community to give back and support reading in their communities. Our initial desire was to launch in Hot Springs full-on in school with volunteers tutoring students in school, but the pandemic hit. Typically, what happens in our in-school tutoring, we have one volunteer who will go to a school like Oaklawn STEM Magnet and tutor two students once a week for 3o minutes each. They'll do that for 10 weeks. Ten weeks in the fall and 10 in the spring."

With the pandemic affecting all aspects of life, AR Kids Read was no different in how they needed to adjust as they made the switch from in-person to virtual tutoring.

"We transitioned rather quickly to pilot virtual tutoring which is something we've never done in the past," Jackson added. "We have actually found our virtual tutoring platform to be well received and decided to keep that platform even when we go back to in person. Our virtual tutors serve one student once a week for 40-minute sessions and it all occurs through our Zoom platform. The tutors log in with the students during the school day and conduct reading tutoring with them. You start the first five minutes with getting to know each other and then the student will pick a book and you read with the student. You do an activity to reinforce what they're learning. They start off with an opportunity to communicate with each other and then they go through books that have been pulled offline and they read together and do activities."

Bennett explained in detail what each tutoring session entails.

"Each tutoring session is around 40 minutes to one hour," she said. "With that, students and tutors log on and they are put in break-out rooms on Zoom. They work one-on-one with the tutor but I am always there along with our community fellow. We record the sessions for safety. Every tutor has a background check and goes through a training process. In the session, they read a book based on the grade level of the student. The student reads the book while the tutor is there assisting them with words they might need help with. They complete a learning activity that is based on the book so it might be based on comprehension or phonemic awareness or some other pillar of literacy. Then we love the importance of brain breaks just to have something fun and interactive to do that also allows our tutors to build rapport and relationships with our students. Typically, at the beginning or end of each session, we might do a group activity that allows the students to kind of dance or might allow them to draw. We have a number of different things that students can do to have fun and close out our sessions."

With the online tutoring program, volunteers from outside of Arkansas -- who once lived here and are eager to volunteer in their home state -- have the chance to participate.

"It allows us to serve students that are outside of our 29 collaborator schools," Bennett said. "We have students coming in from all over Arkansas, outside of central Arkansas. COVID has definitely given us more opportunities to serve more students and expand our programming. There are some nuances to training folks to work virtually and Zoom training and curriculum. There have been some major differences in how we deliver the programming. ... Virtual is pretty much likely here to stay meaning that even when we go in person, it's so many folks who might not be able to get to our schools or they don't live in Arkansas but have a strong interest and commitment to volunteering and we can figure out ways to still be able to offer them the opportunities to make an impact for Arkansas students."

With the program coming to Garland County, Bennett said it has been nothing short of amazing. For Read Across America Week for the week of March 2, AR Kids Read featured Oaklawn on its social media as Oaklawn put together a story challenge video.

"Things have gone on perfectly and the kids are so resilient," Bennett said. "It's adults that have to adapt. The kids are on Zoom, ready to go (and) not impacted at all. It's tutors who are used to in person and still enjoying the energy of going into the schools. Schools are magical places. They really are. They're bright, colorful, cheerful. So they're missing that. It has really worked well. They have adapted well. I'm certain once we can be back in person, we will just continue to see an impact in Hot Springs."

In addition to tutoring, there is a High School Ambassador program is a youth-led service that allows high school students the opportunity to participate in events that encourage literacy through a monthly book club.

"They are trained to facilitate monthly book clubs to elementary students and the elementary students are called our reading ambassadors," Bennett said. "They meet throughout the weekend and they meet in evenings. It's a monthly book club. ... Our high school students have trained all month around discussion questions, pulling vocabulary and everything that we do -- our entire model is based around the five pillars of early literacy. Even for the high school students, they are helping to support fluency, vocabulary development, comprehension, phonemic awareness, all those different things in a fun, interactive way based around our mission at AR Kids Read which is just to nurture a love for reading through relationships. Elementary students and high school students are looking to be a really, really match in terms of working together for that."

AR Kids Read is hopeful that schools will reopen in the fall and will start recruiting tutors during the summer. Both Jackson and Bennett say that being a part of AR Kids Read has influenced their life greatly.

"I have always been an equity-focused educator," said Jackson. "My career has spanned from being a public school teacher to being a higher education professor and administrator to now leading a literacy nonprofit. All 25 of those years have been me really focused on equity and education.

"I remember from my public school teaching days in the late nineties, having students in my science classes that did not read well. I taught seventh grade and I also remembered coming to contact with individuals who were my college students who struggled, not with what they read, but the content. The amount of information they were reading. I've always known literacy and being able to read well was important, but it has impacted in helping to understand that literacy begins to impact outcomes such as high school graduation rates, workforce readiness, career and college readiness and it is one of the foundational skills necessary for individuals to effectively earn income in our society. ... The impact that it has and how their families and teachers want to see them improve, it has just truly impacted me and given me an even greater heart and love for reading. ... If you can early on begin to help kids develop a love for reading, it's a love that will last a lifetime."

"I always say that while I am new to the organization, I'm not new to the work," said Bennett. "I've always worked with youth, with volunteers, and communities and schools. It's something that I love. I feel like I'm at my best when I'm able to work with students, teachers, volunteers and parents in that type of capacity. It has just given me new opportunities to learn about different ways to offer effective programming. I had some knowledge of offering programming virtually, but I'll be honest -- a lot of the work that I had done prior to coming to AR Kids Read was face to face and in person and so now, it has challenged me in new ways of being creative and thinking outside the box and utilizing technology and infusing technology in programming in a way that makes a major impact."

AR Kids Read also hosts multiple events each year with a fundraising event called Spellebration happening on April 1 at 7 p.m. Spellebration is an adult spelling bee that will take place virtually via Facebook and YouTube as they honor community leaders such as U.S. Rep. French Hill and front line heroes and offer a silent auction.

For more information on volunteer opportunities, visit arkidsread.org/volunteer or call 501-244-2661.

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