Walking down the first-grade hallway of Culpeper’s Sycamore Park Elementary School Monday morning, Culpeper County High School junior D’Aron Colbert told a classmate the activity they just finished brought memories back to his own early school years.
“I remember what a kick I got when older students read to me,” Colbert, one of 60 or so CCHS student-athletes involved in the school’s inaugural Reading Buddies program, said. “Now, we’re in their shoes working with a new group of youngsters”.
Having older students read to younger students has been around for years. CCHS principal Danny Soderholm said he had a similar program at Windsor High School, in Isle of Wight County, where he served as principal before moving to Culpeper this year.
Culpeper Assistant Football Coach Donald Downs, a teaching assistant at A.G. Richardson Elementary School, had done it when he played football and attended Averett University. He approached CCHS Activities Director Patricia Oliver last fall and she reached out to Soderholm.
Downs wanted to start the program with student-athletes going to his school but Soderholm saw a bigger vision and expanded it to the four county elementary schools that feed into CCHS.
“Donald was the catalyst for making it happen this year,” Soderholm said. “And it really fits in with what the school division is trying to do, which is to promote literacy.”
The first session began last week when approximately a dozen high school students travelled to Down’s school to kick off the program.
Next week a different set of student athletes will go to Emerald Hill and the following week, the last group of high schoolers will read to students at Yowell Elementary. They’ll repeat the four-week cycle until every school has three visits.
Sycamore Principal Derek McWilliams said the program excited him and that he saw excitement in his students as he walked between the five first-grade classrooms observing the interaction of readers and readees.
According to first-grade teacher Stephanie Karney, student-athletes reading to her class selected age-related books found in her classroom as reading material.
That included titles like “Goodnight Moon” and in “Dog Breath,” a book about a family wanting to get rid of their family pet because he had bad breath.
“The house was burglarized and the dog wound up capturing the bad guys when his breath knocked them out,” Colbert said, in summarizing the book. “The dog got an award and the family ended up keeping it.”
Another classroom, Emily Holst’s first-graders, have been studying about the Olympics and she decided she wanted the student-athletes to read biographies more set for third graders.
“Sometimes instead of reading to your level, it’s good for the children to hear about the subject,” Holst said. “For many students who are just starting out learning how to read or read at their age level, they listen and how fluency sounds.”
Jeffrey Nicol, a CCHS freshman swimmer, read a biography of Jesse Owens to the class and the third graders seemed eager to listen and learn about the track and field star, who broke a color barrier during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
Junior Sadie O’Connor, another swimmer, tried to read “Brown Bear, Brown Bear Now What Do You See” but the children apparently had memorized the book and read aloud with her.
Teacher Rosa Deluca said her students chose the books they wanted read to them adding she liked the program because of the interactions between elementary and high school students.
“I heard one of my students tell the high school student ‘I can’t read very well,’” Deluca said. “The [student-athlete] responded, ‘I couldn’t either when I was your age’.
Oliver said she reached out to her head coaches to come up with the 60 students for the first go-round.
Soderholm added he’d like to expand the program to the whole student body once it gets feet.
“Students from all paths have something to tell and reading is one way to do it,” he said. “We have high schoolers from the scholastic team, drama and all the sports. Becoming Reading Buddies helps them give back to the community and commits each one to service in the community.”
Chuck Jackson is a correspondent for the Culpeper Star-Exponent.