Twice a week after school, about 40 elementary students are spread throughout Lumberg Elementary School in Edgewater, in almost every classroom and quiet corner they find.
Volunteers from two local churches pepper the kids with questions and play rhyming games. Among them is Gary Albrecht, in his second year helping out with the after-school reading club.
“I do the characters’ voices and they catch on right away,” Albrecht said. “Then they’re doing the voices too. They just come alive.”
Just the extra two hours of reading per week last year helped kids improve their reading abilities, vocabulary and English fluency, school teachers found. A group of local nonprofits, the Edgewater Collective, highlighted the Lumberg reading club in a report published this week. The group views it as a model that may be replicated at other elementaries in the diverse Jefferson County neighborhoods bordering Denver.
The club includes students of all ages, but focuses on kids in first and second grade with the goal of having more students reading at the appropriate level by third grade.
“Everything flows from that third-grade reading,” said Joel Newton, executive director of the Edgewater Collective. “These students need extra supports.”
Of the approximately 460 students at the school this year, a little more than 40 percent are learning English as a second language and more than 82 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, a measure of poverty.
According to the numbers in this week’s report, 82 percent of the reading club students, most of whom were encouraged to join because they were falling behind, made at least one year’s growth on reading level ability. Some saw two years’ worth of improvement.
Educators say that the difference is clear when looking at individual students who are in the reading club and those who aren’t.
“It’s a big payoff,” said Rhonda Hatch-Rivera, principal of Lumberg.
Teachers say the two hours a week is enough to make a difference because most of their students don’t regularly read at home.
“We know they don’t because you ask kids, ‘Who reads at home with you?’ They say, ‘Nobody,’” said first-grade teacher Suzie Wawra. “Just that extra time with an adult talking to them and showing them that this is not just important to your teacher or your parents, it’s important for you, is wonderful.”
Teachers say many of the parents are working multiple jobs and may not have time or don’t know how to read English.
More students at the school could benefit from the club, but there’s a waitlist and officials won’t admit more students without more volunteers.
“What we’ve found is it’s best to have one-on-one,” said Laurie Lopez, a teacher who helps coordinate the reading club. “We have six tutors this year who have two kids, but any more than that and it really loses effect.”
The one-to-one pairings also help volunteers develop relationships with the students so they can mentor them around other life skills.
When Albrecht’s fourth-grade reading buddy, Christopher, arrived on Thursday in the room that serves as home base for the reading club, he had his report card in hand.
“We’ll go through this in a little bit, but tell me did you do good?” Albrecht asked.
“I did good,” Christopher responded with a grin.
Lumberg Elementary has a grant this year helping the program by letting staff get paid for some of the extra hours spent on the program, by having an employee organizing all after-school clubs and by paying for snacks to get kids through the extra hour of learning.
Officials said that while money isn’t required to run the program, someone does need to invest time into programming. Volunteers go through background checks and a two-hour orientation at the start of the year. Lopez is also planning another training session in December because volunteers are asking for tips on how to help kids more.
School officials say the volunteers are going above and beyond because they get fulfillment out of the program too.
Volunteer Stephanie Briggs, a retired high school teacher, said she is surprised at how much she enjoys working with the young kids.
“It is so refreshing as a volunteer to come into an elementary school,” Briggs said. “It’s very uplifting. It’s much more fun than I expected.”