UB Marks Successful First Year of Its Component of America Reads Literacy Program

By Mara McGinnis

Release Date: May 28, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "It's a good thing that I have kids or I might be nervous," whispered Mary Gresham, interim vice president for public service and urban affairs at the University at Buffalo, as hundreds of students at Windermere Boulevard Elementary School in Eggertsville filed into the school's gymnasium one recent morning.

Within minutes, wide-eyed kindergarten-through-third-graders gathered around Gresham, listening intently as she read a story about a bear and a mouse who live together. At story's end, she presented Karen Karmazin, principal of the Windermere school, with a special "Author's Chair" that had been painted to reflect the story's fictional characters.

Windermere was one of six area elementary schools involved in UB's component of the America Reads literacy program where students recently enjoyed a break from normal class activities to listen to a story read by a UB faculty or staff volunteer. The volunteers were visiting the schools to present each with a unique chair that had been restored and hand-painted by UB students in the program and community volunteers.

"These decorative chairs will hopefully serve as a motivation for children to read," said Jacqueline Braswell-Woodbeck, coordinator of the UB program, who read a story and presented a chair to children at Poplar Academy in Buffalo.

Woodbeck said the week-long "chair presentations" culminated a highly successful first year for the program, in which UB work-study students tutored elementary-school students in reading as part of a nationwide literacy initiative.

President Clinton initiated the America Reads challenge last fall to help ensure that every child can read well and independently by the end of the third grade. It encourages entire communities -- schools, libraries, religious institutions, universities, college students and senior citizens -- to work with teachers and parents to help teach children to read.

In the first year of UB's America Reads program, approximately 25 university students eligible for federal college work-study money served as reading tutors for elementary-age children under the supervision of a classroom teacher, reading specialist or school principal.

"Given the fact that a lot of students nowadays need and want practical work experience to supplement their studies, America Reads gives those who are especially interested in teaching a wonderful opportunity to go out, do something useful, gain a little work experience and get paid for it," said Gresham, who oversees the program.

UB students interested in America Reads participate in a 12-hour literacy-training course conducted by two reading specialists from the Buffalo Public Schools before they begin work as tutors.

Julie Drake, reading coordinator at the Windermere school, believes the training was key to the success of the program. She said the program had an outstanding first year and that the children at Windermere looked forward to the UB students' arrival.

"They immediately formed a bond and were very well-received; the UB students who participated were very dedicated and have a natural gift for working with children," said Drake.

Atasha Johnson, a nursing major who tutored the same three girls at Windermere all semester, said the best part of participating in America Reads was working with the girls and seeing them motivated to read when she arrived for their session.

Ian Lane, who recently graduated with a major in accounting and who also tutored at Windermere, said the program was challenging, but rewarding, and allowed him to get back in touch with his youth.

Christine Szymczak, an English major who tutored at Poplar Academy in Buffalo, also found the program rewarding.

"When I get to know the area in which a child needs particular help, I am able to target in and work on making a concept clearer for them. The best part comes when I realize what I taught them has sunk in," she said

Paula Sagon, who tutored at Broadway Village Community School in Buffalo, decided to pursue a career in elementary education as a result of participating in America Reads.

"The literacy-training course taught me to look at reading through a child's eyes and other necessary skills to help tutor children in reading," said Sagon. "The program really opened my eyes to elementary education and to the needs of children in our society."