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3rd Grade Reading Initiative Welcomes Dr. Rebecca Koontz: Plans to Expand to Additional Schools

By Susan Shinn Turner

Thanks to a grant from the Woodson Foundation, St. John’s is expanding its third-grade reading program.

St. John’s is entering its fifth year in working with Isenberg Elementary School’s Gator Reading Club, a ministry begun by St. John’s as a result of our 2012 Strategic Plan.

It’s now time to bring that same program to other Rowan County schools with high populations of at-risk 3rd graders. Targeted this fall: Koontz, Hanford Dole, North and Hurley elementary schools. Dr. Rebecca Smith, former assistant superintendent for curriculum for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, will coordinate the effort.

Smith retired in 2012 and since then has been involved in a variety of things related to education. Pastor Rhodes and Karen Puckett, the media specialist at Isenberg, contacted her about helping to expand the program.

Smith will be doing just that thanks to the Woodson grant.

“I’ve been meeting with the schools’ principals and plan to communicate with churches in proximity to those schools to be volunteers in the reader initiative,” she says.

Communities in Schools will conduct the volunteer training.

Smith says that volunteers play a crucial role in the program’s success. Achievement is not only about scores, she says, but about the mentoring component of the program as well.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a cadre of individuals who are excited to be a part of this effort,” she says.

Volunteers typically work with children two days a week, although some volunteers work one day a week, sharing a student with another volunteer.

To foster communication between schools, churches, and volunteers, Smith will send a newsletter to each school involved in the reading initiative. She’s finishing up the template now for what will be called ROAR (Reading Outreach for Achievement in Rowan).

“In the spring of 2019, St. John’s staff and community volunteers met with Dr. Jason Gardner, the school system’s executive director of elementary education, and Marvin Moore, principal of Isenberg Elementary and Salisbury City regional principal, to design how the $10,000 grant would be utilized,” Karen Puckett explains. “They identified four schools that receive Communities in Schools services and about a dozen churches that would be approached and encouraged to participate in the reading club model.”

“With four years of data at Isenberg, we’ve shown remarkable improvement in our 3rd graders’ reading ability. The model works, so our hope is to share it with every at-risk 3rd grader in Rowan County.”

“The idea began with something we called a Poverty Initiative, a product of our 2012 Strategic Plan,” explains Pastor Rhodes. “Poverty is a very real challenge in Rowan county. As we evaluated the needs, we discovered that our community is doing a good job addressing the symptoms (hunger, homelessness, etc.), but we’re struggling to address the causes. When the prison director told us that there is a direct correlation between the size of a prison and the community’s 3rd grade reading level, we knew what God was calling us to. We set up a meeting with the school superintendent and the Isenberg principal, and the Gator Reading Program began.”

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