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Community Voices: Research-based YReads! curriculum boosts Pinellas school success

Kim Lohrey

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Photo: YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg.

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The YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg’s collaboration with local educators, volunteers and donors to address the issue of childhood literacy through the YReads! program has been growing for more than a decade. The success of the program is an example of the significant impact community response can have in meeting a societal need.

Reading is an essential part of childhood development, and one in three American children start kindergarten without the language skills they need to learn to read. Reading proficiency by the third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Approximately two-thirds of children each year in the United States, and 80% of those living below the poverty threshold, fail to develop reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.

The YReads! program in our community started with one school location and has now grown to cover 14 Pinellas County schools. The mission of this free program is to enable at-risk and disadvantaged children, regardless of their race, economic status or capabilities, to increase their reading skills through structured after-school reading instruction and mentoring. This early intervention program improves students’ reading skills through the use of a research-based, data-driven curriculum. It also helps students achieve or maintain satisfactory school attendance and behavior, both essential ingredients to school success.

Typically, students between Kindergarten and eighth grade scoring in the bottom 25% of Florida Standards Assessment (FSA)/English Language Arts (ELA) scores are referred by teachers to work with the YMCA team in small groups or one-on-one during two-hour sessions once per week. The program centers around phonemic awareness, sight word recognition, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary expansion. Most of all, it focuses on making reading fun to inspire learning and help students grow.

One measurement of program success is attendance, and last school year (2020-2021) 97% of students attended YReads! regularly. Additionally, the latest YMCA diagnostic testing and curriculum assessments conducted prior to the Covid-19 pandemic showed that more than 90% of program participants improved their reading skills.

This level of impact has only been possible thanks to the investment of community conscious organizations, including the Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) and the Florida State Alliance of YMCAs. The Raymond James Foundation, Jabil, the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program have also added their support to the program within the past year.

With such philanthropic support, the goal is to help more than 550 students advance this academic year. A critical piece to achieving that – and rounding out the community collaboration aspect of YReads! – is the important role volunteers play in the program. Volunteers are needed, for as little as two hours a week, to serve as reading mentors. Y staff provide all training and continuous support to help volunteers play a hands-on role in developing students’ positive self-esteem and improving their academic performance. It’s an opportunity to give a child access to the world of possibilities that reading provides.

Click here to volunteer and help children in your community learn to read. Or, contact Michelle Curtis, Chief Development Office at the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg to learn how you can help support YReads!

Kim Lohrey is Director of Literacy at the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. As a certified elementary education teacher with a master’s degree in reading, she is dedicated to nurturing the whole child by focusing on the technical, social and emotional aspects of reading skills.

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