Rotarians don reading caps to promote literacy

By Hayley Paytes
UNC Co-Editor
the Durham VOICE

Before Durham Rotary Club member Todd Taylor walks through the doors at Y.E. Smith Elementary, he dons his reading cap – a Stetson – and a cowboy personality.

Durham Rotary Club President Don Stanger reads to a class at Y.E. Smith Elementary. (Photo courtesy of Don Stanger)

He becomes Pod’na Todd Taylor, a Rotary Reading Ranger.

His weapons are books, and his sworn enemy, illiteracy in Durham Public Schools, an enemy he and the club are confident they can mortally wound.

Once a week, once all the kids have hunkered down, “criss-cross-applesauce,” the Rangers take students on a journey to another world.

All the stories they read aren’t full of swagger and shootouts at high noon. The Rangers just try to do whatever the teacher suggests, Taylor said.  But the Reading Ranger title adds whimsy, and in a sense, the Rotary Club members are exploring a new frontier, he said.

In years past, the Durham Rotary Club focused on affordable housing initiatives, but once it learned 41 percent of children in the district failed their reading test last year, Taylor said the club decided to make literacy a priority.

Since last year, Y.E. Smith Elementary reading test pass rate has jumped from 48 percent to 62 percent.

The club teamed with Durham Public Schools last year after Y.E Smith’s principal, Letisha Judd, approached the club asking for money to purchase non-fiction books for the school. The school hadn’t had a new book since 2003, Durham Rotary Club President Don Stanger said.

The Durham Rotary Club raised $3,800 for the school’s library, but then Taylor said, “I got the bright idea, if we got them the books, we should read them the books, too.”

He approached Stanger with the idea, and then the two sprang into action: launching the Rangers within three months of their April 20 meeting.

The club hopes to use Y.E. Smith as a model to export systemwide.

Rather than being Rotary-driven, Stanger said he prefers to think of the program as Rotary-led. He hopes to attract volunteers across community lines, and people do not need to be Rotary members to apply.

Durham Rotary Club member Todd Taylor leads the Rotary Reading Rangers. (Photo courtesy of Todd Taylor)

Solving the literacy problem is not a Rotary Club problem, he said; it is a community problem.

“The three biggest things we can do are bring organization, horsepower and focus,” Taylor said. “We start as the seed and then infect others.”

There are two tracks available to the Rangers. They can either make a yearlong commitment, or pledge to do what they can, when they can.

Only around one-third of the 28 volunteers have signed up to tutor students on a weekly basis. But Stanger said he hopes when volunteers go, they will fall in love with the students they are helping and want to give more.

“Y.E. Smith improved more than 10 points last year,” Stanger said. “That’s great. But their literacy rate is still in the lower 60s. That means a third of the kids are still in trouble. When you see these kids, when you see how excited they are each time we go, how can you not want to go back?”

Once someone commits to being a tutor, he or she goes through a training process at the Durham Literacy Center to better serve the students.

Applications are still open on the club’s website to those who would like to participate in the program. To volunteer, participants have to fill out a form with Durham Public Schools.

Stanger encouraged people to join, saying, “For every 25 hours we read to a child, he or she will improve one grade level.”

“What’s more important than teaching our kids to read?”

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