Marines volunteer to help struggling readers

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comAugust 11, 2013 

Pictured is seventh-grade student Kenyah Blake, left, with Lawanda Bethel during their first session at Robert Smalls Middle School as they participated ion the Reading Buddy program.

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY JULIE JARAMIL — Submitted

On the battlefield, Marines never leave wounded comrades behind.

They apply the same principle to the classroom, according to Capt. Barry Morris, public affairs officer at 6th Marine Corps District on Parris Island.

Morris and other Marines will try to motivate struggling readers at Robert Smalls Middle School through its Reading Buddies program this fall.

The program, which the school hopes to expand this year, pairs adult volunteers with students reading below grade level. Once a week, the volunteers pull their student "buddy" out of class to read aloud to them.

"Students anticipate the arrival of their buddy each week," said principal Denise Smith. "They love being read to and the chance to have an adult friend who focuses just on them."

Students get to choose the books they read, and conversations often flow to related topics of interest, Smith said.

Three Marines participated in the program last year on a three-month trial basis -- one successful enough to prompt a prolonged commitment from the Marine Corps this school year.

"Once the Marines went over for their first day, they couldn't wait to go back," Morris said. "If they could have gone to the school everyday, I think they would have. They were able to come back and share their excitement with others in their unit."

As a result, twice as many Marines have signed up to be Reading Buddies this school year.

"It's a great opportunity for our Marines to form a relationship and attachment to the community," Morris said. "And it's personally rewarding for them to help a child read -- to help young people overcome a challenging obstacle. It's a small contribution that could reap huge benefits for these students later on life.

"We make Marines, but we return quality citizens. And in the Marine Corps, we value lifelong learning and education just as much as physical fitness and readiness."

For Marine Cpl. Maria Ramirez, working with students helps ease being away from family.

"I have little sisters, and doing this felt like pushing a little sister through school -- motivating her to do better," Ramirez said. "I also love kids and plan to become a pediatrician once I'm out of the Marine Corps. And, being a single Marine, there's not much opportunity to interact with kids. This offers something different -- and rewarding -- from the military life."

The power of reading aloud to a child cannot be understated, Smith said.

"Good readers develop mental pictures in their minds of what they're reading," she said. "We need to help struggling readers build a schematic in their mind to visualize what they're reading, and build their vocabulary and comprehension by discussing a story with a buddy. It also gives them a break from focusing on the mechanics of reading to the enjoyment of reading."

Robert Smalls students' reading scores increased this year from last year on state standardized tests, but lag behind their peers across the state and district.

"Having the Marines here at the school ... instills a sense of pride and confidence in these children who need it the most," Smith said. "To have a male or female adult in a uniform ... spend personal time with them, it makes them feel special. It's turned their attitudes about reading around and has given them good role models to emulate."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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Marine Sgt. hired to run Robert Smalls Middle's new military academy: June 12, 2012

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