The United Way of the Lowcountry hopes to put 600 volunteers in Beaufort and Jasper county schools in to get students reading at a higher level.
It's the largest push to rally volunteers the organization has ever made, according to Bethany Marcinkowski, United Way's director of resource services. The group has a little time -- the goal is to recruit the 600 by 2014 -- but reaching the goal sooner would be better, Marcinkowski said.
About 130 have already signed up and will attend training sessions before beginning work by the end of October.
At first, volunteers will be assigned to eight schools -- Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center, Hilton Head Island Elementary School, Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts, Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary School, St. Helena Elementary School, Pritchardville Elementary School, and Ridgeland and Hardeeville elementary schools in Jasper County.
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Beaufort County superintendent Valerie Truesdale said Tuesday her district worked with United Way to select schools with struggling readers that also were close to places known to produce volunteers, such as Dataw or Hilton Head islands.
Volunteers will come to the schools once a week and work one-on-one with students. Each volunteer will be assigned three to four students, Marcinkowski said. Volunteers will follow a specific tutoring program in kindergarten through third-grade.
Truesdale said the district will monitor students' standardized test scores to track progress; she hopes the volunteers will help raise those scores. She said by building a mentor-like relationship with students, volunteers can build confidence in the young readers.
"It helps children and community members connect," she said. "The benefit to the kids, it's just hard to even describe how wonderful it is to be and to have a mentor."
Marcinkowski said United Way hopes eventually to have 80 percent of students reading on grade level by fourth grade and to cut the drop-out rate in half within 10 years.
Helping with reading is the best way to do that, she said.
"If they can read on grade level by the time they reach fourth grade, they are more likely to succeed in school and advance to create better futures," she said.
Those interested in volunteering can sign up online at www.uwlowcountry.org or call 843-982-3040. United Way also needs volunteers to help organize program materials and work as liaisons between schools and volunteers.