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Celebrating the joy and value of reading at Ashland Reads

“There is almost a 90 percent probability that a child will remain a poor reader at the end of the fourth grade if the child is a poor reader at the end of first grade,” according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

This statistic was one of many emphasized at the Ashland Reads event Wednesday morning. For the third consecutive year, the Ashland Rotary Club sponsored and organized a celebration of literacy for all first-grade students in the Ashland school district.

Past president and grant writer Julie Di Chiro said the need to inspire children to read at a very young age is dire.

“Reading is the core competency that we have to emphasize in elementary school. Everything else is important of course, but if kids can’t read well, then they are just at so much more risk of not being academically successful in high school,” Di Chiro said.

“Children who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school,” according to ferstreaders.org. This statistic was also repeated by many Rotarians at the event.

Rotarians met with first-grade teachers last October to select six high-quality children’s books. The teachers then read these books to their classes and each student voted on their favorite. What the students didn’t know was that they would receive their favorite book personalized with their name inside a new backpack filled with donated school and reading supplies at the Ashland Reads event.

“The teachers pick kind of a keepsake book — beautiful artwork, hardcover, a book the kids can keep for some time,” Di Chiro said.

The students were applauded by Rotarians and AHS cheerleaders as they walked under a colorful balloon arch into the Ashland High School theater building. Rotoracts (Southern Oregon University Rotary Club members) dressed in character costumes cheered them on as they entered the building.

“For the kids, we want them to know that the community of Ashland cares about them and that we are very invested in them being successful, especially in this core area of reading,” Di Chiro said.

Once inside, the cheerleaders led a cheer about reading, followed by a skit performed by the AHS Interact Club members and a song created by Tish McFadden of the Rum Yum School of Music. The song was created for the event and taught to the students beforehand, so that each school had its own verse to sing. Sarah Gruilikowski, co-chair of the Rotaract Club, aided in the performance of “Inside a Book.”

After the entertainment, students were organized into small groups and placed with a “celebrity reader” who read their chosen books to them. The event ended with a barbecue lunch prepared by Ashland Fire and Rescue and Police Department personnel.

This event was funded by a $4,000 Rotary District Grant and other funds provided by the club.

Di Chiro said Ashland changed the program from its original form to incorporate second and third grade students, who will receive summer reading material near the end of the month.

“We would love to see this program continue,” Di Chiro said. “The idea is to support the kids until the third grade, at which point we really hope that they will have the foundation of reading under their belt.”

The event originated in Wyoming, according to Di Chiro. John Jorgensen founded the Sue Jorgensen Library Foundation and various literacy celebration events in the state of Wyoming in memory of his late wife, who was very fond of children and reading. In past years, Jorgensen visited Ashland to speak to the students on the importance of literacy, but was unable to make it this year. John Alden of the Springfield Rotary Club spoke on his behalf this year.

The skit that is performed in the beginning of the event is about the good Queen Sue and her love of reading, written by Jorgensen in honor of his wife.

Rotarian Carol Fallows brought the program to Klamath Falls 18 years ago after moving from Wyoming. She then transplanted it to Ashland. Other organizations and Rotary Clubs have adopted the program in other states.

Zeph Robertson, president of the Rotary Club of Ashland Lithia Springs, volunteered as a guest reader. He said in the future, the two Ashland clubs will work even closer together on this event.

“If you start them in first grade and really push, by third grade that’s when you really start to read to learn instead of just learning to read,” Robertson said.

— Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.