If you go upstairs in the library at the St. Johnsbury School at lunchtime on a Wednesday or a Thursday you'll see several pairs of people reading books together at small tables. One of each pair is a student from grades 2 through 5 and the other is an adult from the community who comes every week to act as a reading mentor in a program called "Everybody Wins Vermont."
Started in the state in 1991 by Sen. James Jeffords, Everybody Wins Vermont currently has nearly 1000 reading pairs in more than 20 locations. The program in St. Johnsbury has 15 mentor/mentee pairs and is in its third year. It has won the enthusiastic support of the teachers and especially the students who participate. One of them, a fourth grader, says, "It's really fun reading the books, eating lunch early, and staying inside. I love looking at books that have horses. It's a special time of the week and it's really great to get to know my mentor."
As this student's words make clear, mentors and students develop important and treasured friendships as the weeks and months pass. Everybody Wins Vermont helps to fill the need that all children have for one-on-one attention from a caring adult. Reading is a shared project, something to focus on, and a way for adults and kids to be together with benefits far beyond the academic incentive to improve a child's reading.
Tune Faulkner, the Everyone Wins Vermont school coordinator at the St. Johnsbury School says that what drew her to the program was seeing how excited kids and mentors were about each other. She remembers hearing one student say at the end of a mentoring session, "You mean you're going to come back again next Wednesday!" Tune also emphasizes that the criteria for a teacher's nominating a student isn't necessarily that the student needs remedial help. Some students may be advanced and want a challenge. Others just need one-on-one attention.
Children who are in the program may never have had the experience of being read to. But if you go upstairs in the library and listen, you'll hear mentors reading aloud to students just as often as you'll hear students reading to their mentors. Often the mentor will read first as the child eats his or her lunch on a tray from the cafeteria.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays during Everybody Wins Vermont sessions, there is a book cart available with a variety of materials that adults and children choose and share. Literacy and fostering a love of language are the primary goals. But having fun is important too. In addition to books of fiction and non-fiction at every grade level, from picture books to chapter books to short novels and science and nature books, children can choose word games like crossword puzzles, rebuses, and Junior Scrabble.
St. Johnsbury School teachers agree that the student need is great. Right now there are not enough adult volunteers from the community to work with the many students who would benefit from having a reading mentor. During this school year Everybody Wins Vermont has supplied the necessary funds to keep the program going in St. Johnsbury. With more mentors, more children could be helped and perhaps the school or a community partnership would be able to fund it.