- Associated Press - Saturday, February 11, 2017

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - It only takes one book to get hooked: That’s what SMART coaches are hoping to teach kids about reading at an early age.

Joshua Nokes, a volunteer in Becky Sanchez’ Head Start class of 3- to 5-year-olds at Hermiston’s Victory Square center, sits down with a student and starts reading her a book about colors. She listens as he reads, enjoying his expressive rendition of the story.

SMART, which stands for “Start Making a Reader Today,” is a statewide program that organizes volunteers to come into classrooms and read one-on-one with students. The goal is to encourage kids to enjoy reading and strengthen their literacy skills at an early age. Throughout the state, students between pre-kindergarten and third grade participate in SMART, reported the East Oregonian (https://bit.ly/2lkRBKM).

Locally, SMART is run through the Head Start programs. There are three locations - two in Hermiston and one in Pendleton.

Julie Sanders, director of the Umatilla-Morrow Head Start program in Hermiston, said the program is essential to encouraging literacy at an early age - which is often a predictor of academic achievement in later years.

“A good foundation in literacy is essential to success everywhere else,” she said.

Sanchez, who has taught with Umatilla-Morrow Head Start for nine years, said she notices the difference in her young readers from the time they start reading with volunteers to the end of the year.

“A lot of people worry that they don’t read well,” Sanchez said of people hesitant to volunteer. She insisted it’s more important to demonstrate a love of reading.

“They just need to see that literacy is very important in their life,” she said.

Currently, Sanchez has about four volunteers that come to the class weekly and spend about 15 minutes reading one-on-one with each student. Twice a month, children also get to choose a free book to take home with them.

“When we give the kids books, we put their name on a sticker on the book, and tell them, ‘Nobody can read it without asking you because it’s your book,’” said Jorge Colon, a coordinator for the SMART program at Victory Square. “A lot of kids don’t have books, so it’s special to them.”

Colon said he’d love to see the program extend to elementary schools in Hermiston.

“From a selfish parent standpoint, my children have so many more books now,” he said with a laugh.

The program has also been beneficial for volunteers.

“We had a volunteer last year who was dyslexic,” Colon said. “I noticed his confidence and strength as a reader improved.”

The statewide SMART program recently received the Walt Morey Young Readers Literacy Legacy, an award presented to a person or group that has contributed to literacy efforts for Oregon kids.

The program is in need of volunteers, Sanchez said, and would benefit from both English and Spanish-speakers.

“It’s really easy to get cleared, but it’s difficult to get people to be here,” Colon said, looking around at the four regular volunteers reading with students. “This is our really dedicated group.”

Colon said anyone can sign up to volunteer for the SMART program at getsSMARToregon.org.


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.com

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