Amayrany Cano Perez’s finger drifted across the pages of “Whiskers the Lonely Kitten,” deliberately reading each word and sounding out the harder ones.
“As she ate her apple, it only made her feel woor … worse,” Perez, 8, said.
Tutor Stacy Light praised her for each defeated word, from murmured to affectionately. The second grader made it through 10 pages during their session, a multi-sticker-worthy accomplishment.
“You’re doing a good job. There are some hard words in this book,” Light told her.
For two years, Light, of Little Rock, has been a tutor at St. Theresa School through AR Kids Read, a nonprofit founded in 2012 that trains volunteers who dedicate one hour each week to read with two students.
“It’s not just about the reading. It’s about being a mentor,” Light said. “When I come to do the door of their classroom, their faces light up. We have this special time just for them. It’s like ‘OK, I’m making a difference.’”
St. Theresa School is the only Catholic school that participates in the free program. It currently has four tutors with eight students being mentored, said principal Kristy Dunn.
“Their reading skills are improving. They’re having extra reading practice, which is what us teachers want, what parents want, what the community wants,” but what is most exciting is having another career-driven adult tutoring them, Dunn said. “It’s a mentor relationship and another role model to look up to.”
The mission is to help advance literacy in the state and make sure students are proficient in their reading level by the end of third grade. There are startling statistics — 63 percent of third graders in Arkansas are below their grade level in reading and 65 percent of these students “drop out of high school, end up on welfare or end up in the prison system if no productive action is taken,” according to arkidsread.org.
“Education is the foundation for folks to have a career, to avoid poverty, to really be able to have a sustainable family income and if children haven’t had the opportunity to read proficiently by the third grade, they really are behind in prospects for the future,” said executive director Charlie Conklin.
They have more than 400 tutors in 49 schools, including St. Theresa, though the majority are public schools. The program is currently in Pulaski County only, but Conklin said they hope to expand in the future.
The program runs from October to March and encompasses first, second, third and occasionally fourth-grade students. Each tutor works with their two students weekly for 30 minutes each. Volunteers can choose the time and school that works best for them through the program’s website.
Tutors are trained and workshops are held each semester that can discuss anything from understanding poverty to general tutor tips. Tutors can also volunteer during the summer. As a gift, students get a book before Christmas and spring breaks.
The success of the program can be measured by student feedback. Amayrany, who said chapter books are her favorite, was quick to point out what she loves about reading with Light.
“Everything,” she said.
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