Washougal school partners with Read Northwest to help youngest readers

‘Reading buddies’ help Hathaway Elementary first-graders strengthen literacy skills

Washougal resident Anna Paul refers to child illiteracy as “a pandemic within the pandemic.”

She knows that students who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma when compared to proficient readers, according to a recent study from The Annie E. Casey Foundation. She also knows that only 55.4 percent of third grade students met the standard for English Language Arts in Washington state during the 2018-19 school year, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

That’s why she recently helped the Washougal School District form a partnership with Read Northwest, a Vancouver-based nonprofit organization that strives to elevate early childhood literacy in Southwest Washington, which launched its “reading buddy” program in first-grade classrooms at Hathaway Elementary School earlier this month, pairing students and adult volunteers for weekly reading sessions.

“She had some statistics (indicating that) one in four children in America are growing up without learning how to read, and a lot of those students are in Clark County,” Hathaway principal Wendy Morrill said during the Washougal School Board’s March 8 workshop.

“We really want to prevent that and make sure that is not a statistic for us here in Washougal. We can take steps working with our community to improve those statistics.”

The program will help students build positive relationships and friendships, improve their learning skills, and allow them to feel welcomed by a caring adult role model, according to Paul, Read Northwest’s development coordinator.

“We really want to inspire children to read,” Paul said. “Even reading on an electronic device is different from reading a tangible book. There are actual studies out there that show you get a different level of satisfaction from reading an actual book compared to reading on a device.

“But we also want to make those students feel important. A lot of the students who are at-risk, maybe their home lives are a little more challenging or not as stable. We’re bringing volunteers in to develop positive relationships and make those students feel good. We want to improve the social emotional aspect as well.”

The program “is going very well” in its early stages, according to Paul.

“The students seem to be very excited that somebody’s coming there for them and giving them undivided attention for that amount of time,” she said. “Everybody’s getting along. I have great communication with the volunteers that I have so far, great communication with the teachers, so nothing’s getting missed.”

Read Northwest was founded by Vancouver businessmen Jerry Romano and Rich Brosius, who brought Paul on board as the organization’s first employee earlier this year.

“I’m very familiar with Hathaway Elementary, and I know that they’re a Title 1 school, and Read Northwest wants to target those Title 1 schools first,” said Paul, a former substitute teacher for the district. “When (Romano and Brosius) hired me, I told them I could most definitely get this going in the Washougal School District. I’m from this area, I know the people, I know the community, I know the students, and I know the teachers, so that’s how I started at Hathaway initially.”

Morrill said that she’s “thrilled” to bring the program to her school.

“When she brought up the idea of bringing Read Northwest and their ‘reading buddies’ to Hathaway, I right away was really interested in hearing more about it because I know we’ve had ‘reading buddies’ in the past, and I also know that one of the really important parts of our Hathaway community is involving a greater community in the work that we do here, and that we need the support of our community to make sure that all of our students are thriving,” Morrill said during the workshop.

“It lends itself very well to our mission statement, which (was formed) in collaboration with families and staff members, that we engage our students in not only rigorous but joyful learning experiences that meet their individual needs and help them reach their full potential.”

Earlier this year, Paul asked Hathaway first-grade teachers Charlotte Linde and Dakota Wilkins to select five of their students who might benefit from the presence of a “reading buddy.”

“We have identified students that need additional support with their literacy skills,” Morrill said. “They were saying things like, ‘I’m not a reader’ or ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I don’t like to read’ — indicators that they might need additional support.”

Paul then held a “meet-and-greet” session with the students and volunteers, who chose which pupil they wanted to work with.

Students began meeting with their “reading buddies” on March 7. The weekly sessions last for about 20 minutes and take place during the school’s first recess period.

“The students get to pick their own books that they’re interested in,” Paul said. “They basically have a bunch of books in their ‘book box,’ and when their reading buddy is with them, they bring their ‘book box’ out and sit down and just start talking and reading and start to develop those relationships.

“Depending on the comfort level of the student and comfort level of the volunteer, we’re not forcing these students to do absolutely 100 percent of the reading. It’s not like that at all. Everybody has their off days, or maybe they don’t feel like reading at all. They could just talk. It’s very open-ended. We’re trying to make everybody feel comfortable so there’s as much positivity as possible.”

The program strives to “develop positive and impactful connections” with students, “thereby creating inspiration and encouragement in literacy,” according to a brochure.

“I believe the most important way they can benefit from this is (they) realize there are other people out there that will make them feel important and that there are other ways to spend their time — they can choose to read books instead of getting on an iPad or something like that,” Paul said.

“Whether the students know it or not, it will improve their social-emotional skills because they will have one-on-one uninterrupted conversations with adults that care for them, and they know that those adults will care for them. With that, I think that will improve academic learning. Social-emotional (learning) is very, very important. I think that’s the foundation for everything else.”

The program is designed in such a way that allows the partnerships to continue over the span of the next several years, according to Morrill.

“A ‘reading buddy’ could build a relationship with a kindergarten student as they read together for fun for half-an-hour, and that volunteer could follow them into first grade and second grade and be able to (provide) yet another trusting adult in their life that can help instill that passion for literacy, which is what we want for all of our students,” she said.

If the program is well-received during its initial run at Hathaway, it could spread into other Washougal elementary schools in the 2022-23 school year, Morrill said.

The program has also launched at Sacajawea Elementary School in Battle Ground. Read Northwest eventually wants to “get into all of the (Clark County) school districts — multiple schools, multiple grades” within the next five years, Paul said.

Paul, who also serves as the organization’s volunteer coordinator for Hathaway Elementary, continues to recruit community members who could be deployed as “reading buddies” now or in the near future.

Those interested in volunteering can contact Paul at 541-808-1114 or anna.paul.readnorthwest@gmail.com to receive an application. Volunteers must pass the school district’s background check, show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and be willing to commit to reading to the same child up to 30 minutes, at least once a week.

“I believe (the volunteers) will have some sort of satisfaction knowing they are paying it forward or giving something back to the community and seeing the results of that,'” she said. “We plan on doing multiple grades next year, so we’ll need up to 20 volunteers, or maybe 30. And eventually down the road maybe we’ll get over to Gause and Columbia River Gorge (elementary schools) or some of the schools in Camas. It’s definitely a work in progress, but I welcome more volunteers. It might overwhelm me for a bit, but that’s OK.”

The school board members expressed strong approval for the program during the virtual work session. In fact, board president Cory Chase indicated that he hopes to become a “reading buddy” in the very near future.

“I have my paperwork done, so I’m going to be jumping into the volunteer pool as well, and I think my wife will be in the school this week. (I’ve received) some really good feedback from her already about what the experience is like,” Chase said. “I was really excited to hear about this. I know it will be challenging to get volunteers to be comfortable coming back into the schools, but there’s a lot of folks that are waiting for opportunities like this so they can be involved. I think there’s going to be a lot of interest from folks to participate in this.”

“I think if kids learn to read early and they like it, it opens a whole bunch of doors in their lives that they never really knew were there,” board member Jim Cooper added. “Any program we can (provide) to help the younger learners read and like to read is going to have a positive impact on their lives in all aspects. I’m excited about it.”