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.”

The program had its genesis in Moose Lake, Radzak said. Kraig Konietzko, the elementary school principal, brought the concept with him when he moved to the district from the Virginia schools. In Moose Lake, the kids would bring their lunches and the adults would have coffee and cookies during the reading sessions.

This year, 16 adults 55 and older are participating in Moose Lake, Radzak said. Each is in the school for an hour, reading first to a second-grader and then to a third-grader. The senior citizens in the program have become like a family, she said, and some say they wish they could keep reading with the kids during the summer school vacation.

The Northland Foundation doesn’t have data on reading scores of children in Reading Pals. But teachers surveyed about the program report improved reading scores, increased reading comprehension, greater confidence and self-esteem, children becoming more outgoing, having an increased learning and love of books and positive relationships with caring adults, reported Zane Bail, director of development and special projects for the foundation.

Among the older adult volunteers surveyed, 96 percent said it made them feel their skills and experience are valued, 87 percent said it made them feel more connected, 68 percent said it made them feel better physically and 93 percent said it made them feel better emotionally, Bail reported.

That fulfills an original purpose of Age to Age and Reading Pals, said Lynn Haglin, Northland Foundation vice president. The foundation conducted an extensive survey of older adults in the region in 2007 and learned that seniors had a great desire to be more involved in their communities, Haglin said.

“A secondary theme was their great concern for young people,” she said.

But unless they had grandchildren in the community, they didn’t have a way to connect with kids, Haglin added.

“I JUST LOVE KIDS”

The volunteer readers at Bay View last week echoed the theme of connecting with local children.

“I just love kids,” said Funes, a retired respiratory therapist. “It really inspires you and keeps you youthful to some degree.”

Sadler, in her first year as a reading pal, said she’s thinking of asking if she also can read with a second child.

“First of all, all of my grandchildren don’t live here, and I love kids,” Sadler said. “They’re so darn cute. And I wanted to do something that would be kind of rewarding.”

As lunchtime ended for the first-graders, other twosomes continued with their reading, eating and conversation. Betty Morin, 77, was with third-grader Jake Follett, 9, new to the school this year after his family moved from Kimball, Minn. He said his favorite book so far was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / Ghostbusters.”

“I love the Turtles,” Jake said. “I’m a fan.”

Morin has a particular reason for volunteering at Bay View: Her daughter, Diane Morin, is the principal.

“I recruited my mom,” Diane Morin said. “And my mom recruited a lot of people.”

Betty Morin is unapologetic about her recruitment efforts.

“There’s no reason for anyone who retires to be sitting at home idle,” Betty Morin said. “There’s so much you can do.”

Mehrotra, who’s working on the third edition of a textbook he co-authored, “Aging and Diversity,” is bullish about Age to Age and its Reading Pals program.

It’s vital for senior citizens to share their experiences with children, he said.

“Experience is too important a thing to waste,” Mehrotra said.

Mehrotra, 83, was asked if he reads with children.

“Of course,” he said. “When I go to my friend’s house or to anybody’s house, talking and visiting with their children is the best part of my visit. … I tell them stories and they tell how their life is, and they also sing songs for me.”

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