By Terri Robertson
When Zhoria was in second grade, like many children her age in Birmingham, she struggled with reading. When asked to read aloud, she felt overwhelmed and had a hard time comprehending books on her grade level. Then Zhoria met Mary Margaret Yeilding and Polly Edwards at STAIR.
STAIR stands for Start The Adventure In Reading and is a local nonprofit children’s literacy program. As volunteer tutors in the program, Yeilding and Edwards each spent an hour a week working with Zhoria on her reading after school. They saw she lacked confidence in her reading, but knew that with some encouragement and hard work she could catch up. The key was to set goals together and encourage her to work hard to reach each milestone.
Then something amazing happened.
“One day, she just took off! The seeds we had planted and watered suddenly sprouted and blossomed in Zhoria,” said Edwards.
At the beginning of the second grade, Zhoria could read only 23 words correctly in a minute. After nearly 55 hours of one-on-one tutoring twice a week, she was reading 95 words correctly. That meant she had reached the national benchmark for her grade level and was equipped with the skills she needed to be successful as she entered third grade.
Second-Grade Intervention Is Critical
Zhoria is not alone. In Birmingham City Schools, only 23.4 percent of students are reading at grade level by third grade, according to the Alabama State Department of Education.
This statistic is concerning because it’s in third grade that children begin to use their reading skills to learn math, history, language and science. If they aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade, they are more likely to fall behind in other subjects. STAIR is designed to get struggling readers on track before that happens.
“Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success,” according to the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
Today, STAIR has grown to 13 Birmingham City Schools serving 200 students, who have been recommended to the program by teachers, reading coaches and school administrators. Each child receives 55 hours of one-on-one tutoring throughout the year. STAIR students improved their reading skills by an average of 107 percent during the 2017-2018 program year.
A major component of STAIR’s success is the 500 trained volunteers who serve as tutors.
“Less than two hours a week is all it takes to make a tremendous impact in the life of a Birmingham student, equipping them with the skills they need to be successful in school and in life,” said Liz Edwards, Executive Director, STAIR.
Volunteering For STAIR
Vashon Bridgewaters, a manager in Information Systems at Vulcan Materials Company, first got involved in STAIR through Project Corporate Leadership, a six-month training program where young leaders work in small teams to bring positive change to Birmingham.
What he has done as a volunteer and advocate for STAIR is amazing, earning him a nomination for Hands On Birmingham’s Volunteer of the Year in 2018 and 2019.
An important thing to know is that every STAIR volunteer makes a difference. If you’re thinking about volunteering for STAIR but have reservations, take it from Bridgewaters. When he first started at STAIR, he was overwhelmed. He has kids himself but was worried about his ability to teach. Once he began tutoring, however, those fears went away.
“It is really just the time. STAIR provides the structure, the curriculum and the map for tutors to work with,” said Bridgwaters. “And sometimes, children just need the attention and the focus of that person with them. By having that one-on-one time when they know ‘Hey, Vashon, Kerrie or Susan is really interested in me, and I love reading with them’—it builds that love for reading.”
Helping STAIR Grow
As part of the Project Corporate Leadership program, Bridgewaters helped bring about two key initiatives at STAIR.
Spearheading STAIR’s first junior board. Today, this group of young, civic-minded professionals is working toward the program’s long-term sustainability.
Launching an initiative between STAIR and the Literacy Council called Coaching A Better Reader. This program educates STAIR parents on how to encourage and support their child’s reading development at home.
But he didn’t stop there. He was instrumental in expanding STAIR to its 13th site at Oxmoor Valley Elementary. He also helps recruit new volunteers to help fulfill the tremendous need for the growing program. To do that, he starts close to home where most of his connections are—his employer, Vulcan Materials Company.
“Vashon is a real game changer for STAIR,” Edwards said. “He has been instrumental in helping us get the site started at Oxmoor Valley Elementary. He continues to lend a hand and talk about STAIR out in the community. That helps us build awareness around the literacy needs of children in our community.”
Getting Co-workers on Board
At work, Bridgewaters uses a community engagement program called VEDA (Vulcan Employee Development Association) to spread the word about STAIR. He has even invited Edwards, to lead a “lunch and learn” to teach Vulcan Materials employees about the program.
Once a few employees began volunteering and experiencing how rewarding it was, the buzz started to spread and more signed up. Now there’s a growing pipeline of STAIR volunteers coming from Vulcan.
How Local Businesses Can Help
Local Birmingham businesses have a role to play in building STAIR’s base of volunteer tutors, too. Tutoring sessions begin at 3:45 p.m., right after school. Finding volunteers who can take off work is one of the biggest hurdles STAIR faces, so companies that donate their employees’ time are essential.
One reason Bridgewaters has been able to successfully recruit volunteers from his workplace is his company’s leadership. Vulcan Materials Company allows employees to leave work early two days a week for the program. Then the company took it one step further and lent space at its headquarters to STAIR for volunteer training.
Imagine what STAIR could do in Birmingham if all local businesses got involved this way. To volunteer, donate or inquire about joining the junior board at STAIR, visit stairbirmingham.org.
For more on the modern, mobile guide to Birmingham visit bhamnow.com