It’s just after lunchtime on a Friday afternoon, that point of the week when things can get really animated in a kindergarten classroom.Amanda Steele’s students are humming with quiet energy inside their classroom at George Ross Elementary School when four visitors enter. Then the “oohs” and “aahs” begin. The day’s guests are volunteers from Buehrle Academy, an alternative setting for middle and high school students who are working to improve behavior, academics or attendance after disciplinary issues at their home school.
They’ve just walked over from their campus on Clay Street, ready to help Steele convert her students’ preweekend jitters into academic excitement.
This is Ross Readers, a program that dates back to the 2011-12 school year, when administrative leaders at both School District of Lancaster buildings recognized an opportunity to build positive relationships.
The Ross students get to read to cool big kids and show off how they’ve learned to sound out common letter patterns and “power” words they have become familiar with during their first year in elementary school. The Buehrle students, meanwhile, are selected as a reward for making improvements at their own school and get to see themselves as leaders because of it.
J’Nai Hunter starts the May session by reading “Animals Hiding” to a table of five students. When one shouts, “I can’t see,” he quickly adjusts his posture so that all the children can find a deer hiding in tall grass.
“There you go,” J’Nai says with a shy smile, turning the page to a snow rabbit.
“It blends into the snow,” he reads. “Do you know what that’s called? It’s camouflage.”
Steele’s students are flush with reading materials, seat covers holding several “just-right” books that match their current achievement level. Stacks of library books also dot some tables.
After J’Nai finishes just one story, kindergartner Javian Vargas is excited to take his turn. He waves a slim paperback called “Can I Fly?” in the air, and then proceeds to read it aloud so that his classmates can hear and J’Nai.
Steele has been working with Buehrle Principal Joel Bacharach to sustain the partnership for about three years. Every fall, she watches as the reading partners help her students build their confidence as they work on vocabulary and reading comprehension. The group of students from Buehrle who attend each session changes from month to month, but Steele said that’s never been an issue.
“It’s the idea that really catches the attention of our younger students,” Steele explains. “That high schoolers come down here, and they get to have them in their class.”
Tenth grader Corrine Hill starts out with a library book called “Slithery Snakes,” asking her readers to guess snake types by colors and patterns in the photographs. When she sees their attention waning, she instinctively sets it aside in favor of the lighter “When I Was Little.”
After reading for about 15 minutes, the class breaks into stations. For May, those included a sun catcher craft using tissue paper; making words from magnetized letters found in foil “space rocks”; creating soil profiles out of chocolate pudding, Oreos and graham crackers; and a math worksheet.
Tenth grader Jakira Autry is here for her second time, and today, she’s leading the mini-art lesson for the sun catcher project. While the kids smear glue sticks across paper plates, Jakira describes the kind of good behaviors that earned her entry into the Readers program: learning words of the day and solving daily math problems, supporting her peers and being a leader.
“If we can do that, we get special privileges like this,” she says. “It’s a good feeling to be able to come here.”
High school buddies
Steele and Bacharach stay for the entire program but encourage the younger students to lean on their high school buddies for help.
One younger student is less than impressed when he arrives at J’Nai’s table straight from eating his gummy worm-studded “dirt.” Students at J’Nai’s table are supposed to don sunglasses with a different number of stars on each shade and add up the totals on their worksheet.
“Listen to my man J’Nai,” Bacharach says. “He’ll show you what’s up.”
Within seconds J’Nai is over the boy’s shoulder helping him, encouraging him to use his fingers to calculate.
“It’s more about the mentoring for my students,” Bacharach says. “They’re almost being revered here. They don’t really need to put on a show. They just need to show up.”
He says Ross Readers also teaches his students that giving back to their community is a valuable component to successful living, one that can be fulfilling in its own right. That’s important to many Buehrle students, but especially those who may be dealing with personal struggles or lack strong personal role models.
Ninth grader Milson Mombrun is here for the first time. As the kindergartners return their books to their seat pockets, he says he came mostly because he “wanted to do something working with the kids.”
He also loves to read nonfiction and anything inspired by current events. Being a reading partner felt like a good fit to him.
And research has shown that reading aloud may also help older students build confidence and improve critical thinking skills by making them better listeners.
“Mrs. Steele does a good job of promoting reading for her students,” Bacharach says. “If (my students) are inspired to read, too, that’s just an added benefit.”