Book Buddies

One-on-one sessions strive to improve Seymour Academy students’ reading levels

During Isaac Osei-Bobie’s first session as a Book Buddy, he had to chase 6-year-old Julio Pinet Jr. around the Seymour Dual Language Academy library and persuade him to settle down long enough to finish his lunch and complete reading his sight words. Although it was just the first session, Osei-Bobie feels optimistic about future sessions.

“I went to Syracuse city schools, so it’s an easy way for me to give back, and I get something out of it, but I think the kids get even more,” he said. “This gives half an hour to an hour where they can just sit down, one to one, and get any sort of attention that they need with their reading.”

Second-grade student Nazariah Smith and volunteer Mary Baily sit and read during a session of Book Buddies. | Photo by Kathy Hua

In its second year, the Book Buddies program has enlisted nearly 100 Syracuse community volunteers, more than twice as many as last year, to help first- and second-graders with their reading skills at Seymour Academy.

“From professionals in the community, some from the working world, to police officers, to retired teachers, there’s a wide range of volunteers,” said Ashley Rivera, the site coordinator for Book Buddies from the Near Westside Initiative.

Rivera said the group focuses on these grade levels so students receive help before they get to third grade, when standardized testing begins.

When it’s time for their Book Buddies session, students often enter the library boisterous and energetic because many of them are returning from recess or lunch. During their 30-minute session with a volunteer, the pairs review sight words and read up to three books together. By the end of the session, Laurie Black, the program coordinator from Syracuse 20/20, encourages the students to read for 20 minutes a day at home.

Syracuse 20/20 is a nonprofit organization that aims to identify and address problems facing the city of Syracuse. Members began the Book Buddies initiative as a result of collaboration with the Campaign for Grade Level reading, a national organization that targets third-grade reading skills for children from low-income communities.

The environment in the Seymour Academy library during the lunch hour is relaxed yet educational. Student and volunteer pairs spread out around small tables and chairs, along the bookshelves and sometimes on a beanbag chair. Volunteers can be heard praising students for completing a book or sounding out a word, and the students always leave with a pencil and a sticker for finishing the session.

Dorcas MacDonald, a second-year volunteer, returned because she recognizes the necessity of the program. And as a retired librarian, she also enjoys seeing students grow to love reading.

“I love children, and I actually wanted to volunteer in a library once I retired and this gave me the opportunity to do it,” she said. “It’s a good program, and I’d like to see it at all the schools because the children need help with reading.”

According to the New York State department of education, in a searchable database of scores provided by, 92 percent of third-graders in the Syracuse City School District did not meet state standards in ELA testing in 2015. At Seymour Academy, 96 percent of third-graders did not.

First-grade student Katore Henderson and volunteer Laurie McCarthy sit and read during a session of Book Buddies. | Photo by Kathy Hua

Besides growing the number of volunteers, Book Buddies also increased the number of students who participate in the program. Last year, 40 participated; this year, 86 are participating. Additionally, Rivera said the Book Buddies coordinators plan to work closely with the school staff and administration to monitor the students’ attendance to ensure they are attending Book Buddies if they are at school that day.

The program was established at Seymour Academy because a teacher there reached out to the Near Westside Initiative to request more community volunteers at the school, Rivera said. In the future, it may expand to other schools, but for now the program is focusing on core skills of Seymour’s first- and second-graders.

BookBuddyVolunteerSasha Rasmussen, a first-grade teacher at Seymour, expressed her appreciation that the program provides additional support and time for her students.

“Last year, when we compared the beginning and end results, we had students move up three or four levels of reading, and that’s when I partnered with Laurie and Ashley,” she said. “I saw the data and I said, ‘I want to be involved, I want to show them that it really does help out students and it does matter.’”

During volunteer training sessions, Rasmussen makes a point to stop by and meet the volunteers to let them know the substantial difference their time makes.

According to results compiled by Book Buddies last year, the reading skills of 30 out of the 40 students participating were below grade level at the start of the year. By the end of the year, nine students were at or above grade-level reading. However, all 40 moved up at least one reading level, 32 moved up at least three reading levels, and 20 moved up at least five reading levels through the year.

The Book Buddies program faces an uphill battle in helping kids achieve grade-level reading skills, but both the volunteers and coordinators remain optimistic that their work will be beneficial. Osei-Bobie believes that just having one-on-one time with a different instructor than usual is effective.

“Maybe if you hear the same things over and over from the same people you might tune them out, so I think it’s good just to give them a different face and a different voice on a weekly basis.”



— Article by Ashley McBride, The Stand Staff reporter

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