Bright Spots showcase the work that Grade-Level Reading communities are doing to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download the file.

Building on the “it takes a village” approach, Camden, New Jersey’s Grade-Level Reading Campaign, Born to Read, has launched a volunteer-based one-on-one reading program for preschoolers as part of its multi-faceted early literacy initiative.

Inspired by successful evidence-based volunteering and mentoring programs, Born to Read is recruiting and training volunteers from throughout the region to be one-on-one readers.

“The goal is to build a large volunteer-based literacy intervention to increase reading exposure, strengthen literacy foundations for our youngest learners and develop a lifelong love of reading,” says Merilee Rutolo, Chief Operating Officer at Center For Family Services, a nonprofit agency in Camden that is the lead organization for the local GLR campaign.

Promoting volunteerism and citizen service to help young children learn to read is part of the GLR Campaign’s agenda. National Volunteer Week — set for April 6-12 and sponsored by Points of Light, a national civic engagement group — offers an opportunity for GLR communities to highlight the value of volunteer reading tutors.

In Camden, volunteers are asked to commit to one hour per week throughout the school year. While parent volunteers are strongly encouraged, engaging the community is also a focus. But finding time to volunteer regularly with young children in a school classroom can be challenging for busy professionals.

“One challenge was the time commitment we were asking for,” says Kelly Fischer, Center For Family Services’ program coordinator who oversees the one-on-one reading program.

Flexibility has been key. To encourage volunteers from its community partners — Subaru, Campbell’s Soup and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University — the one-on-one program encourages, but no longer requires a one-hour per week commitment. Instead volunteers can form teams and designate a backup to fill in if a volunteer can’t attend.

It took the pressure off and made the program more enticing,” says Fischer. “We have recruited more volunteers because we changed that policy.”

Now in its second year, the program has 30 volunteers reading in 10 Head Start sites. The program is in several public schools in Camden City and beyond, thanks to a partnership with BookMates, a local literacy program whose 300 volunteers work primarily with at-risk elementary school students in southern New Jersey.

Born to Read volunteers are assigned to a specific classroom where they read one-on-one with three students, each for 20 minutes. Focused on school readiness, the program primarily serves 3- to 5-year-olds.

Each volunteer receives two hours of advance training to better ensure that they are teaching early learning skills. “We want to make sure all the volunteers are trained and supported in the best practice techniques to help build early literacy,” says Rutolo. “It’s an intentional approach.”

“The ancillary benefits are positive relationships, mentoring and modeling. What we’re trying to build in these early stages is a lifelong love of reading. If we make this a positive experience that the kids can look forward to every week, it develops a positive mindset and approach to reading.”

The one-on-one program dovetails with other Born to Read efforts, including a parent engagement piece where parents learn similar skills to encourage early literacy. “What the kids are experiencing in the classroom can then be reinforced at home,” says Rutolo.

For more information, contact Merilee Rutolo at 856-964-2100 or mrutolo@centerffs.org.

National Volunteer Week is April 6–12. For more information, visit www.pointsoflight.org/signature-events/national-volunteer-week.

Photos: Center For Family Services 

You can nominate a Bright Spot in your community by emailing Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net

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