United Way Quad Cities hopes to help close COVID-related gaps in youth literacy by connecting hundreds of volunteers with students across the Quad Cities for weekly one-on-one reading sessions.

United Way has launched Read United QC, a community-wide awareness and action campaign to help 500 struggling readers (preschool to 3rd grade) to get the skills they need to succeed in school and life. The initiative is in partnership with school districts in Rock Island and Scott counties.

“Education is the first step in crossing the opportunity divide,” Maria Ontiveros, Corporate Community Liaison at Group O, said in a Wednesday release. “We’re proud to partner with United Way Quad Cities to present this meaningful program to inspire young students to read, develop vocabulary skills and spark imagination, helping to solidify the foundation for them to reach their full potential in school and in life.”

In recent assessments available since the start of the pandemic, local studies found just 30 percent of third-grade students are meeting grade-level proficiency performance. This number contrasts with the 61 percent of local third-graders reading on grade level before the pandemic.

Rene Gellerman is president/CEO of United Way of the Quad Cities Area.

“By engaging students in books and with reading volunteers, we can give them the opportunity to practice reading and develop literacy skills so they are more likely to complete their education and obtain higher paying jobs,” said Rene Gellerman, president/CEO of United Way Quad Cities.

Students reading on grade level by third grade are five times more likely to graduate from high school. United Way said that 30% of regional third-graders did not report test scores for 2020-21, compared to only 7% that didn’t in 2018-19.

“This one factor, the ability to read proficiently at the end of third grade, has long-term implications for individuals and for our community,” Gellerman said. “For a student, youth literacy can lead to improved self-esteem, increased civic engagement, and a greater likelihood they’ll access good jobs and health care — it opens up opportunities for success in life.”

How Read United works

Read United works by pairing adult volunteers with pre-kindergarten through third-grade students to read together for 30 minutes a week throughout the school year or summer.

Local studies have found just 30 percent of third-grade students are meeting grade-level proficiency performance, compared to 61 percent of local 3rd-graders reading on grade level before the pandemic.

The one-on-one reading sessions will take place weekdays during regular school hours and after school at select schools and child care centers in Rock Island and Scott counties.

So far, at least 380 students have been referred to the program by teachers and care providers at the 14 participating locations. United Way expects additional referrals of students struggling to read with a need for 500 volunteer readers.

“A child’s horizon can be broadened by opening a book and reading to them,” said Marci Zogg, Vice President of Community Impact at United Way Quad Cities. “Students imagining themselves in books is one of the keys to early literacy, as it enables children to see themselves as heroes of their own story. When children fall in love with a book, they fall in love with reading as well. They learn they belong in the world, and the world belongs to them.”

Motivating children to read is an important factor in student achievement as it develops vocabulary, sparks imagination, and deepens children’s understanding of the world.

“In the highest-need schools, there are more kids in need of extra reading support walking in the door every morning than there are resources to support them effectively. We recognize these schools and their teachers are faced with the challenge of both an achievement gap and a resource gap,” Gellerman said.

“To change the trajectory of a generation, it’s going to take all of us – individuals, institutions and the community to prioritize education and line up to support our kids and teachers. Education is the best pathway out of poverty and how people gain the skills and confidence to do so.”

Now accepting volunteers

Participating sites include elementary schools in Rock Island, Davenport, Bettendorf and Pleasant Valley and nonprofits such as Hand in Hand and Spring Forward Learning Center. Other cities and locations may be added in the coming weeks.

Anyone can volunteer, as long as they are at least 18, pass a background check and complete one hour of training held virtually. Volunteer opportunities are available for in-person and virtual reading, though the greatest need is for in-person volunteers.

To register, visit www.unitedwayqc.org/readunitedqc and select a day, time and location that works best with your schedule. For more information, visit www.unitedwayqc.org, or contact United Way Operations Assistant Amy Daniels with any questions at adaniels@unitedwayqc.org or 563-344-0344.