Champaign Schools, Chamber Of Commerce Seeking Volunteers For Literacy Program

The former Dr. Howard elementary school in Champaign.

The former Dr. Howard elementary school in Champaign. Dr. Howard is one of four schools participating in a new volunteer program to boost reading ability.

Travis Stansel/Illinois Public Media

Only about a third of Champaign Unit 4 third graders are meeting or exceeding expectations on state reading exams, according to Illinois State Board of Education data. That’s why the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Champaign County say they’ve partnered with the district in the hopes of boosting the number of students reading at grade level.

The initiative is called iRead-iCount and the group is looking for volunteers willing to spend at least an hour in a Kindergarten classroom each week beginning in mid-February. The pilot program will include classrooms in four school buildings: Stratton, Booker T. Washington, Garden Hills and Dr. Howard elementary schools.

Assistant superintendent of achievement and student learning at Unit 4, Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, said the schools were selected because of the number of students in need of reading assistance enrolled in those buildings.

Organizers say the program will provide one-on-one attention for a targeted group of students who are struggling to develop literacy skills. They say the hope is to expand the program to more grade levels, and eventually add a math component as well.

Laura Weis, president and CEO of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, said the inspiration for the initiative came from business owners in the community. She said they surveyed their membership and “the skills they need in their workforce are the ability to read and (do) math.”

Ivory-Tatum said the district piloted a similar program last year with a small group of students at Stratton and Dr. Howard schools. She described it as “very effective.”

Weis said the Chamber wanted to target students younger than third grade because developing literacy and math skills early is crucial.

“If they haven't built those foundational skills starting with Kindergarten we're not going to be able to suddenly mold these high schoolers into the qualified workforce that we need,” she said.

Volunteers who sign up for the program will be provided with activities that will help students trace letters and sound out words, Ivory-Tatum said.

Weis said the intention is to assist classroom teachers by providing the extra attention to students who need it. Often, Ivory-Tatum said, teachers aren’t able to work one-on-one with every student who needs it due to large class sizes.

“For a kindergarten teacher to know I have students who are going to get to go out every week for a designated time to specifically work on things that they need individualized to them is huge,” Ivory-Tatum said.

Weis said they’re hoping at least 60 volunteers sign up for the program.

The deadline to apply is Jan. 31. Volunteers must pass a background check and participate in mandatory training. Applications and more information can be found online at:

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

Story source: WILL