Jan 05, 2017

Reading Pals program in Northland schools brings students, seniors together

It starts small.

Emma Bailey, a first-grader with big, expressive eyes, sets her school lunch on a table in the Bay View Elementary School library. Emma sits close to Elaine Sadler, a youthful-looking and enthusiastic 78-year-old.

Duluth News Tribune
December 7, 2016
John Lundy

It starts small.

Emma Bailey, a first-grader with big, expressive eyes, sets her school lunch on a table in the Bay View Elementary School library. Emma sits close to Elaine Sadler, a youthful-looking and enthusiastic 78-year-old.

At a nearby table, fellow first-grader Denim Berry, bringing his lunch from home, slides next to Ron Funes, a 66-year-old retiree with an almost perpetual smile and a steady, calm manner.

As Emma eats spoonfuls of fruit and Denim nibbles a granola bar, books come out of a child-sized tote bag — “Super Fly Guy” for Emma and “Jeff Gordon (NASCAR Champions)” for Denim.

Gradually, more senior citizens make their way into the school’s library, each soon joined by a child. Groups of two form, each pair with an age difference between them of six or even seven decades.

The voices are library quiet, but bits of conversation can be heard. Super Fly loves the dirty dishes and smelly mop in the school lunchroom, Sadler reads. “Do you like that?” she asks.

A negative headshake. “Me, neither.”

Funes is talking racing with Denim. “Oh, Brainerd, yes,” Funes says, responding to a comment from Denim. “That’s a big one.”

It’s a Reading Pals day at the school, located in Duluth’s Bayview Heights neighborhood but part of the Proctor school district. It’s a program that pairs 11 senior community members with 11 (and sometimes one or two extra) children in grades K-3 to read together during the 30-minute lunch period.

It started as a pilot program in 2013 at Bay View and at Moose Lake and McGregor schools with funding from the Northland Foundation, and has continued each year since. This year, Two Harbors and Aitkin schools were added.

Teachers select the students to participate in the program.

“I ask: Do you have a student (who doesn’t) qualify for any special education or Title I, but they still need help bringing up their reading scores?” said Jes Manninen of Proctor schools community education, who coordinates Reading Pals at Bay View.

BRINGING AGES TOGETHER

It’s part of a larger Northland Foundation initiative called “Age to Age: Bringing Generations Together,” and improved reading comprehension is only one of the goals.

The larger Age to Age program serves 13 smaller communities and three reservations across Northeastern Minnesota.

“The Age to Age program brings the ages together,” said Chandra Mehrotra, professor emeritus in psychology at the College of St. Scholastica and evaluation consultant for the program. “Children need love and affection. Older people need love and affection.”

Vicki Radzak, who coordinates the program in Moose Lake, told of seeing one of the program’s older adult volunteers in the grocery store recently. The man had suffered a stroke and had had to leave the program. But he said he was getting better and promised he’d soon be able to resume reading with a child.

“It gives me goosebumps even to think about it,” Radzak said. “It’s nice to have older adults in our school who care about the kids.”

Read the full article at Duluth News Tribune.