At Field Elementary School, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” was the book of the week. But during a reading session Thursday, something different — something awesome — happened.
For the first time, first-grader Breonna Brown read the entire book on her own to her partner in reading, Stacey Hawkins.
Hawkins, a senior studying education at Columbia College, and Breonna have been reading together once a week when school is in session for more than a year.
“When I get stuck on a word, she helps me,” the 6-year-old said, looking up at Hawkins with a toothy grin.
Following her finger as she quietly read the book aloud, Breonna paused to talk with Hawkins about what Clifford and Emily Elizabeth, the book’s main characters, are doing.
Suddenly, Breonna brightened as she made a connection between her life and the book’s story line. Her class was going to have a party, she announced to Hawkins, just like the big red dog was having.
“I have noticed that she is a lot more self-confident going into this year,” Hawkins said, clearly excited because of Breonna’s accomplishment. “It was awesome to see her reading. I am so happy for her.”
Hawkins and Breonna are paired together as part of the Reading as Partners program coordinated by Columbia College and Field Elementary. The two schools have been partners in education for 18 years and offer a variety of activities.
The Reading as Partners program is in its fourth year. The program ends each semester with a picnic. Columbia College dining services provides a boxed lunch for the reading partners. After a semester of reading, growing and learning together, they have a meal together and then the children receive a gift from their partner.
“I love seeing children progress. When we started, I would always read to her. Now she reads to me,” Hawkins said. “I can also tell it matters to her. It is neat to see that she appreciates me being there.”
Faye Burchard, dean of campus life at Columbia College, agrees that being read to is an important part of a child’s development.
“Research tells us that a child has to have about 1,000 books read to them before they are able to read,” she said. “So we thought maybe we could assist the children down at Eugene Field (school) with that.”
The program was established after the Columbia School District set a goal to have all third-graders reading at a proficient level, Burchard said.
“Being an institution of higher education, it was natural for us to work towards that goal with students at Field School,” she said.
The program is designed to provide all kindergartners and first-graders with their own reader from Columbia College. Once a week for 20 minutes, they read. Most of the 75 volunteers are students, but a few are faculty and staff members at the college.
Every school day, volunteers are at the school engaging children in reading.
“A lot of days I wonder if it is more rewarding for our students or their students,” Burchard said.
Burchard, who is also a volunteer, said that when a reader opens the classroom door, the excitement spills from child to child: “Someone always says, ‘There’s your reader, there’s your reader,’ and then the child dashes to the reader for a big hug.”
To Burchard that is the most rewarding part of the program.
“When I walk into her class room she smiles, it’s a mutual thing,” Hawkins said. “Reading with her enables me to show her that reading is fun because you can put a little bit of yourself into it.”
As for Breonna, now a champion reader of “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” she said she likes reading at home and at school. “I like reading to people,” she said.