Oregon's SMART (for "Start Making a Reader Today") program got started in 1992 with a handful of volunteers and one simple idea: that having a grownup spend a little time each week reading with a young child would encourage a love of books and improve the child's reading skills, confidence and school performance.
The idea caught fire. This year hundreds of volunteer "SMART readers" are working one-on-one in schools statewide with 11,600 kids in kindergarten through third grade. And the idea works: A study showed that fifth-graders who participated in SMART were 60% more likely to reach state reading benchmarks than similar students who didn't have the benefit of the program.
Although the number of kids already being reached is impressive, the new leaders of the organization believe five times as many Oregon children could benefit from SMART and are determined to boost participation to that level.
That's a fine goal. But to pursue it, SMART is adopting a strategy that could tear the heart out of the program.
At the heart of SMART are the part-time paid coordinators - nearly 200 of them in schools throughout the state that have SMART programs. The coordinators match up students with volunteer SMART readers, keep track of schedules, recruit new volunteers into the program, arrange for substitutes (or fill in themselves) when readers don't show up, and maintain the weekly reports that the volunteers fill out to monitor each kid's progress.
It's a demanding job and sometimes a stressful one. It takes good organizational and people skills, a belief in the SMART mission and, above all, a love of kids.
SMART's idea is to do away with the paid coordinators and put their jobs on a volunteer basis. That would save an estimated $1 million a year and supposedly help SMART reach its goal of quintupling its enrollment. As we see it, though, it looks more likely to gut the program.
SMART coordinators put in upwards of 20 hours a week. That's a hell of a lot of time to ask a volunteer to give. Will SMART be able to find nearly 200 people statewide - 19 of them in Central Oregon alone - who are willing to make such a heavy commitment? And will they have the skills and dedication that the paid coordinators bring to the job?
As SMART Program Director Brooke Johnson said, the paid coordinators "know SMART works." Not only that, but they know how SMART works. Many of them have been involved with the program for years. They know the interests, the family situations, the strengths and weaknesses of the kids and the personalities of the volunteers who read with them. And they're able to track the kids' progress from month to month, year to year. How many volunteer coordinators would stick around long enough to develop that depth of understanding?
The paid coordinators are the linchpin of the program, and SMART will never be the same if they go away. It should give the misguided volunteer coordinator idea THE BOOT.