SMART IMPACT

June 12, 2002 12:00 am
Sharing A Love Of Reading: Dave Secl, a volunteer with the Start Making A Reader Today (SMART) program, reads a book to Nathan Schlaht, who was a student at Riveria Elementary School this school year. (The Observer/Dick Mason).
Sharing A Love Of Reading: Dave Secl, a volunteer with the Start Making A Reader Today (SMART) program, reads a book to Nathan Schlaht, who was a student at Riveria Elementary School this school year. (The Observer/Dick Mason).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

They were tears of joy, ones that may have represented a heartfelt link to reading that will last a lifetime.

The tears were flowing from a La Grande kindergarten student in the Start Making A Reader Today (SMART) program. Children in the program read with an adult volunteer for half an hour twice a week during the school year. They also get to select — and keep — two books a month.

The La Grande kindergarten student had selected a book but did not realize that it was hers to keep. The girl was preparing to return the volume when she was told it was hers. "You mean it is mine forever?'' the girl asked.

The child began crying. She had a book of her own for the first time in her life, said Melissa Jackman of the La Grande School District's SMART program.

Jackman was a volunteer coordinator of the the SMART programs at Central and Riveria elementary schools this spring.

Not all children in the program, which was started in March and April in La Grande, responded with such emotional joy as the kindergarten student Jackman spoke of. Many, though, made noticeable improvements in the classroom and other areas of life.

Returned questionnaires sent out to teachers indicated they observed that children in the program developed a love of books and improved their behavior, Jackman said.

A number of teachers detected improvement in reading skills, Jackman said. The precise level of improvement will not be known, however, until next school year when reading skills will be tested on standardized exams.

If history repeats itself, the scores should reflect significant progress.

The SMART program was started 10 years ago in Oregon and has proven so successful that today at least 250 schools have it in place.

In the La Grande School District, the SMART program has 57 volunteers. Most are women. Jackman hopes to get more men involved during the next school year. She said that many children today come from single-parent families.

"A lot of families could use a stable male role model,'' Jackman said.

Chris Quebbeman, the SMART program volunteer coordinator at Greenwood Elementary, said that children enjoy reading with adults in the SMART program.

"They have positive adults who really care for them,'' Quebbeman said.

Adults who have served as SMART volunteers in La Grande include members of the

La Grande Fire Department and officers with the La Grande Police Department and the Union County Sheriff's Department.

"(Having the police and firefighters come) was a big thrill for the students. They were asking, ‘When do I get my turn to read with the police and firefighters?' " Jackman said.

The SMART program served children in kindergarten and first grade this spring. Second grade will be added in the 2002-2003 school year.

All La Grande elementary schools are participating in the program except Willow Elementary, which has a successful Reading Buddy program modeled after SMART.

SMART is sponsored by local donations and the Oregon Children's Foundation, which was started in 1992 by former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt. SMART is the only program that the Oregon Children's Foundation supports.

For many years only schools with a large number of students from low-income families could be involved in SMART. Today all elementary schools are eligible for the program.