Buy Photo

Californian file photo

Rebecca Rojas, a Community Reading Project volunteer, quizzes 9-year-old Alex Jacquez about a book he just read at Munsey Elementary School in this 2005 photo.

Yes, this column will have numbers in it and research and all that grown-up stuff. But first indulge me while I tell you how weirdly and intensely wonderful it is to have four little kids whose last names you don't even know, light up like Christmas candles when you walk into their classroom.

How you try, but fail, to remain stoic during the Pledge of Allegiance as they sneak gap-toothed grins in your direction.

No, you're not bringing presents or cookies.

All you're doing is sitting with them for a few minutes once a week listening to them read.

I've been a huge proponent of the Community Reading Project for years, encouraging, cajoling and even chastising you all to join up and help kids learn to be better readers by third grade.

Well, last semester I decided to take my own advice and spent an hour each Thursday at a local elementary school.

I admit I was nervous at first. Frankly, I'm no teacher. And the people I spend most of my days around aren't exactly soft and cuddly. I, myself, could be described as more than a bit, er, hard-boiled when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

Me and a bunch of 6-year-olds? What was I thinking?

So, during the volunteer training session, I showed up early, took copious notes and studied all the handouts religiously.

If I wasn't a natural at this relating-to-kids stuff, I'd at least try to fake it with overpreparation.

What a pansie I was.

First of all, you're not set adrift with a bunch of kids and expected to "MAKE 'EM READ!"

The incredibly competent teachers involved in this program know their stuff. They identify who would benefit most from the extra reading time and set the stage with the kids. They pick books that they know each child can master, while still being challenging enough to keep their interest. And they're right there with you to answer any questions.

Plus, my teacher, Mrs. Miller, put the equivalent of gold stars next to my weekly notes on how each child did during my hour. (Who doesn't like getting gold stars?)

Ideally, there are four other volunteers just like you helping the same kids read on the other days of the week.

I say "ideally" because that's the single biggest challenge for this program -- volunteers.

We do not have nearly enough.

Which is a crying shame because, as simple as the program is, it really, really works.

The average reading proficiency growth for kids in the program is about eight months per semester.

That's a whole grade level.

And that can be crucial for children who are reading below grade level, especially in second and third grades.

If they don't "get" reading by the third grade, they fall behind at an alarming rate starting in the fourth grade, when the curriculum moves from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."

Keeping that fact in mind, here's a sobering statistic: Only 36 percent of Kern County's third-graders rated proficient or advanced on reading in the latest round of state testing.

Less than half of our third-grade population can read proficiently.

That's frightening to me.

It leads directly to so many other problems we have in Kern County, and the Central Valley: high rates of dropouts, unemployment, poverty, crime and on and on.

If kids don't learn to read well by the third grade, they give up. Once that happens, it's tough to convince them that striving for more and better education will benefit them in the long run.

So, stepping in when they still have a chance and giving them the extra encouragement and attention to get over that reading hump is vital.

But, frankly, as good as the Community Reading Project is, it can't do a thing without enough volunteers.

There are nearly 14,000 second-graders in Kern County. But only about 180 to 200 of those children are lucky enough each semester to get into the program.

That's because the volunteer base for the project has languished at 200 volunteers any given semester.

That's clearly not enough.

"It's a good program," said Della Hodson, a spokeswoman for United Way, which helps fund the part-time coordinator position for the Community Reading Program. "But you can't expect a significant impact in the county overall reaching so few children."

So, this is my plea, yet again: Grab your friends, family and co-workers, go through the orientation (coming up quickly!) and give one hour a week to benefit the future Kern County's young minds.

I promise it's easy and extremely worth the minimal effort.

Hey, if I can do it, so can you.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com