A local nonprofit seeks to empower a new generation of readers through the Book Buddies program, which connects community volunteers, college students and young children through literacy activities in Syracuse schools.
By Laura Román López
Young children line up, lunches in hand, as they wait to be let into the classroom. They crane their necks to get a better view, curious about what awaits them on the other side of the door.
Inside, Book Buddies volunteers look through bright-colored folders that hold the day’s activities as they prepare to meet the students, who range from kindergarten to third grade.
One by one, the teacher calls the children by name and directs them to enter the space and sit next to a volunteer. Shy smiles meet curious eyes. It’s the start of a bond that will grow from the October day the pair meet at Dr. King Elementary School.
The children start to eat lunch, nibbling on sandwiches and cut-up fruit as their book buddy works to initiate conversation. This first session focuses on getting to know each other, and the volunteers use it as a chance to better understand the child’s reading ability.
“What sound does this letter make?” a volunteer asks a first-grader.
“/d/ like dog,” the boy responds.
“That’s right. Do you like dogs?” the volunteer asks.
“Yes. I have two,” says the boy, holding two fingers up for emphasis.
Reading is a foundational skill for learning, personal growth and enjoyment, according to the New York State Education Department. Yet only 46% of third graders scored proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) in the 2021-2022 New York State Assessment, as reported by The Education Trust New York.
The assessment highlights that the three cities with the highest concentration of child poverty in the state – Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo – also have some of the lowest third-grade proficiency rates on the ELA assessments at 11%, 13% and 24%, respectively. Overall, the state’s third and fourth-grade ELA proficiency declined by about 6% since 2019, a decline that may have been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the New York Equity Coalition.
In response to these struggles, the Syracuse City School District has partnered with the United Way of Central New York to bring Book Buddies to elementary schools across the city. The Book Buddies program seeks to connect community volunteers to young students who are in kindergarten through third grade. Twice a week, for 30 minutes, students meet with one or two book buddies to practice reading and comprehension skills. Starting in 2014 at the Seymour Dual Language Academy, the Book Buddies program has grown to also be offered in STEAM at Dr. King Elementary School, Delaware Primary School, Roberts PreK-8 School and Dr. Edwin E. Weeks Elementary School.
Laurie Black, community education director of United Way, works with schools, volunteers and students to develop these partnerships across the district. The program now works with around 500 children and they expect to continue growing as the school year progresses. Striving for one volunteer per child, Book Buddies is looking for volunteers. To participate, sign up on the Book Buddies website or call 315-428-3941 for more information.
“Literacy is the key to our community. It’s the key for having a successful life,” Black said. “We want to make sure that all kids in the Syracuse City School District are reading on grade level, that’s the goal. It’s going to take good work from the district, good work from families and good work from the community to raise great readers.”
Black also emphasized that community volunteers are what makes the program so successful as it’s through their time and commitment that young children can get added practice to their reading.
As the children from Dr. King Elementary School read, a petite woman was going around the classroom interacting with the different tables. She had a pen in hand and wore her Book Buddies lanyard as she introduced herself.
The woman, Cathy King, is a retired teacher who started volunteering in the program this past January. Having spent 36 years working as an elementary special education teacher, King says that becoming a book buddy has allowed her to still be an educator even as she enjoys retirement. Being able to witness the changes students go through as they participate in the program and become more open to having fun through reading is the biggest takeaway from the experience, she mentioned.
“Reading is their savior; it’s their ticket to everything and opens up endless opportunities,” King said.
Although the majority of the volunteers are community members like King, Book Buddies has established partnerships with Syracuse University and Upstate Medical School University for students to participate as well.
Jessie Scrimo, a first-year student at SU majoring in education, visits schools as part of her coursework. The experience allows her to interact with young children while developing skills that will shape her teaching career, like writing progress notes and assisting with classroom management.
Scrimo, who comes from a long line of women educators, was inspired since she was young to be in the education field.
“For me as a university student, going into schools and working with kids is a great supplement to my education classes,” Scrimo said, “With Book Buddies and with the kids, we can transcend age and work together to improve on the reading skills.”