For most children, the crisp fall air brings with it excitement and anticipation of a new school year: new teachers, new classrooms, new adventures in learning. But for a child who struggles to read, a new school year brings anxiety and fear. Reading is the foundation on which all other learning and life-skills are based, so it is critical for children to grasp the concepts before they reach middle school.
Unfortunately, many children struggle to meet this developmental benchmark. Elementary school reading issues cut across all social and economic boundaries, but children growing up in poverty suffer disproportionately compared to their more affluent peers. Literacy begins at birth. Even before a child learns to speak, those tiny brains are decoding language, picking up on the cadence of speech patterns, and beginning to decipher the sounds different letters make. Children who grow up in a language-rich environment start building these skills early when parents read or sing to them and when they are exposed to good nutrition, high-quality child-care, pre-school education, and other outside enrichment such as regular trips to the zoo, library, or McWane Center. A more affluent child is firing on all cylinders when kindergarten begins and is ready to absorb everything thrown his way. A child growing up in poverty, however, is rarely exposed to the same environment during the crucial toddler years, and often enters kindergarten woefully behind in basic skills.
The future for many of these children might seem bleak if not for the efforts of hundreds of volunteers working alongside them in schools around the city every week, patiently helping them read and consistently giving them hope for a better future. These real-life superheroes don’t hail from a faraway planet. They come from an organization dedicated to improving third-grade reading scores, one kid at a time.
Start the Adventure in Reading, better known as STAIR, was founded at Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) in 2000 to address the issue of grade-level reading. Jeanne Isaacs, who was serving as Director of Children’s Ministries at the time, and church member Anna James collaborated with Birmingham City School teacher Caroline Polson to create an after-school program focused on under-served second graders who needed a little extra boost to raise their reading scores. They followed in the footsteps of the already-established STAIR New Orleans for program ideas, and opened the ministry the first year with a dozen second graders from Avondale and Whatley Elementary schools and handful of volunteers. The pilot program was a huge success, with all students showing considerable improvement in reading scores. In the 18 years since its inception, those dozen students have grown to over 200, the original volunteers now number over 500, and STAIR has become a stand-alone 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, though it still receives support from IPC. As the program grows, so do success rates.
According to STAIR Executive Director Liz Edwards, during the 2017-2018 school year STAIR students increased their oral reading fluency scores by 107%, doubling the number of words they were able to decipher correctly in one minute. Almost as important as the scores, though, is the confidence these children gained before heading off to third grade. The classroom teachers of the STAIR students agree that participation in the program can totally change a child’s attitude. Liz says this is her favorite thing about her job, watching the students change and develop over the course of the school year as they work week after week with the same volunteer tutor. “This transformation,” says Liz “is due to the relationship between the student and the tutor which provides the encouragement needed for the student to dig in and work hard to become a stronger reader.”
Liz does not under-estimate the critical role volunteer tutors play in the success of STAIR. “None of this would be possible without the dedication and commitment of our volunteers,” she says, noting these heroes come from all walks of life: junior high and high school kids, retired doctors and lawyers, policemen and nurses, and more than a few stay-at-home moms. “STAIR brings individuals together whose paths wouldn’t normally cross. Expanding the world, dreams and life narratives of STAIR students will have an impact on their lives and on our city for decades to come,” says Liz. But she also adds the tutors gain as much from the experience as the STAIR students. The vast majority of STAIR tutors will tell you the time they spend as a volunteer is often the highlight of their week, and almost all feel as if they are making a true impact on the lives of the children they serve. Diana Plosser is entering her seventh year as a STAIR volunteer tutor, and she has also served as a member of the board of directors. During her tenure, she has worked with a diverse group of students who all improved their reading scores, but she says the test results pale in comparison to the reward she has gained through the relationships formed with each unique young person. “For me, hugs and smiles beat even the best test scores,” she says.
“One of the things I love most about working with STAIR children is a renewed feeling of closeness to myown mother,” says Jeannette Watford, a long-time STAIR tutor at Norwood Elementary School and a former board member. “She taught me to read before I went to school. It was a magical time and I hope that enthusiasm somehow comes through when I read with my second grade friends.” Jeannette and Diana regularly encourage friends and neighbors to serve as tutors, which is not as demanding as one might think. The STAIR staff does all the hard work, such as developing curriculum, testing the students, conferring with the classroom teachers, managing enrollment and attendance, and dealing with family relationships. After a training session at IPC, tutors simply show up once a week at their assigned school to read with an engaging and charming second-grader. The same tutor works with the same child each week in order to build a bond that will allow both to open up more about their lives, their hopes, their dreams. By the end of the school year, they are no longer tutor and student. They are truly friends. “Working with STAIR children is an exercise in remembering that children live closer to God than adults,” says Jeannette. “They are honest, trusting, eager-to-learn, without guile or agendas.” And who couldn’t use a friend like that?
Liz says the biggest challenge facing STAIR right now is recruiting enough volunteers to meet the needs of students who want to enroll in the program. The program is currently operating in 13 Birmingham City Schools serving over 200 students, and calls come in every day from other schools wanting the program in their facilities. Liz asks anyone interested in changing the life of a child to give them a call and get involved. “I believe all children deserve the opportunity to receive an education that empowers them to create a future story, fulfilling their dreams of being lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses or even President. But in order to make those dreams come true, they have to be able to read. It is the foundation of all they will be asked to do.”
To find out more about STAIR and how you can volunteer or support the organization in other ways, check out their website: stairbirmingham.org.