Even before Laurie McNichols began working with the SMART program, she always had a passion for reading. Even when she was younger, reading came naturally for her — but that’s not the experience for all kids.
SMART, which stands for Start Making A Reader Today, is an Oregon-based nonprofit that places community volunteers in elementary schools to read one-on-one with kids. However, McNichols, who had two young children herself when she began at SMART nine years ago, says that improving literacy rates isn’t the only goal of the program.
“We want kids to reach their full potential through reading,” McNichols says. “But it’s not just about the reading. It’s about having a positive interaction around books. I’m convinced that what we do has a meaningful effect on the lives of the kids that we support.”
In a 2011 study relying on data from students born between 1979 and 1989, researchers found that students who can’t read on grade level by the third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. Additionally, if that same student comes from poverty, they are six times less likely to reach graduation.
According to Oregon Smarter Balanced Assessment testing, 53 percent of third-grade students did not meet state reading standards in the 2017-2018 school year.
The SMART program does two things. Program leads like McNichols connect volunteers with students from participating elementary schools. The volunteers meet with the kids weekly to read a book of their choice.
“And the other thing we do is provide free books for children to keep,” McNichols says. “So each student who participates in SMART reads with a volunteer at least 30 minutes a week and then receives up to 14 new books to keep of their own.”
Since its inception in 1992, the SMART program has grown from serving only eight schools in two Oregon cities, to having served more than 220,000 children, and giving more than 2.8 million books away, according to their website.
What began as volunteer work with SMART turned into an actual job for University of Oregon senior Abiy Williams.
“I was only planning on volunteering,” Williams says. “But since they support reading and literacy, SMART was able to pay me through my work-study through the university.”
UO students who qualify for the federal work-study off-campus award can get paid for being SMART readers, according to McNichols, but for Williams — it wasn’t about the money.
“We have one of the highest rates of low-income and unhoused kiddos at our school,” Williams says. “And seeing that switch flip when they are able to take a book home that they can read and love is why I do it.”
SMART is currently taking pledges ahead of the World Read Aloud Day on Feb. 5, hoping to get at least 10,000 Oregonians to promise that they will read aloud to a kid on that day. If there aren’t any kids in your life, SMART asks that you spread the word about the campaign and the importance of reading.
“What we’re trying to do is just get kids excited about reading,” Williams says. “We’re not there to teach them. We’re just there to get them to love books so that they’re more motivated to learn to read, so that hopefully by third grade they can start reading to learn, instead of learning to read.”
SMART is looking for volunteers for multiple schools. To sign up, visit SmartReading.org.