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SMART volunteers make a difference at elementary schools by reading to kids each week

Jefferson Elementary School student Brandon Blaylock has no trouble naming his very favorite book. It's that cool one about creepy crawlers, the first-grader said.

You know, the kind where you count, Brandon added. The ladybug book.

But then there's that other book, Brandon interjects, the one about birds with googly-eyes and a strange, beautiful feather.

That one's his favorite too.

My really favorite is the book about trucks and '10 Little Dinosaurs,' he added.

I guess I like all of them.

Each week for 30 minutes, Brandon takes a break from his regular school work to read about the adventures of bugs and dinosaurs and trucks and birds.

The time spent reading his books and finding new favorite stories does more than hone Brandon's reading skills. It gives the first-grader 30-minutes of undivided attention with an adult volunteer.

Brandon is just one of more than 1,000 local kids participating in the SMART program ' Start Making A Reader Today.

The state program pairs an adult volunteer with a child between kindergarten and third grade. They meet once a week for 30 minutes to improve reading fluency, accuracy and comprehension.

It makes such a difference for these kids, said Mindy Alford, SMART area assistant and volunteer. The kids really love it.

During the 2001-02 school year, more than 980 volunteers read to 1037 students in Jackson and Josephine counties. Twenty-nine Southern Oregon schools participate in SMART.

This year, Alford said the goal is to read to at least 1375 kids through the SMART program on a local level.

But that goal may be hampered by a lack of volunteers, she added. It's unclear how many adult volunteers are participating now, but the number has declined this school year.

I know that a lot of people dropped out for whatever reason, Alford added.

In addition to volunteers with a clean background, local teachers are seeking out bilingual participants, said Carrie Prechtel.

Prechtel is a SMART coordinator and teacher at Phoenix Elementary School.

The teachers have requested, and we really need them, she added.

For example, Prechtel said teachers use Spanish 90 percent of the time for kindergartners and first-graders enrolled in Phoenix's VISTA program for Spanish-speaking students.

The language split is 80-percent Spanish, 20-percent English for second- and third-graders, Prechtel added.

It's extremely important for every child to learn literacy in their primary language, Prechtel said. It's hard for them to switch back and forth between the languages (during SMART).

SMART was created to address children entering Oregon's elementary schools who are, in many cases, more than two years behind their peers in language and literacy development.

It was founded by former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and others in 1992 and is a statewide nonprofit organization, funded by grants and donations.

The program is part of the Oregon Children's Foundation and is currently in public elementary schools that serve a high percentage of federal free or reduced-rate lunches.

How to become a volunteer

SMART volunteers spend one hour a week between October and May reading to two children during 30 minute sessions.

To participate, readers must fill out an application and undergo a background check before receiving free training.

Schools are also seeking bilingual participants to read to Spanish-speaking students in their native language.

For more information, call the SMART office in Medford at 734-5628. Participants can request to volunteer at a school in their neighborhood.

For additional information about the SMART program, call 1-800-355-3999 or visit the Web site: .

First-grader Brandon Blaylock goofs around with a favorite book with SMART volunteer Sherri Hubbard at Jefferson Elementary School. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven