Teachers gathered at Lamar Elementary School to learn about the new reading program.

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

mwaters@heraldandtribune.com

Last week, Washington County teachers were the ones sitting behind a desk ready to learn about a new reading program in Washington County.

Three Washington County Schools are saying “hello” to Vello, which is a virtual reading program that allows students to read an online book to a volunteer each week in order to improve a student’s reading proficiency. Thanks to United Way’s Washington County chapter, the program will be implemented this school year in two second-grade classrooms at Lamar Elementary, two at South Central Elementary and one at West View Elementary.

United Way President and CEO Kristan Ginnings said Vello was a program the group wanted to implement in order to address the needs of the community head on. And in her mind, helping young students build their reading skills was at the top of that list.

“I know where reading scores are,” Ginnings said. “That’s something that really changes a child’s life, if we can get them reading proficiently by third grade. My goal is to get our teachers extra resources to get those kids reading proficiently before they reach third grade.”

Ginnings said the group raised $25,000 from generous donors within the past four months for the program. Those funds went directly towards implementing the program in five classrooms throughout three Washington County Schools as well as five classrooms at Mountain View Elementary School in Johnson City.

Ginnings teamed up with Valley of the Sun United Way National Director Reid DeSpiegelaere to show Washington County teachers how to use the online reading program in their classroom. While going over the logistics of Vello, DeSpiegelaere said the program not only boosts student reading skills, but it offers a new way of impacting what a child thinks of reading while also offering a new way to volunteer in schools.

“We said, ‘We’ve got to change how volunteers engage with schools.’ It’s hard for volunteers to get to a school, walk in your door, not be disruptive but also help kids with their reading,” DeSpiegelaere said. “So how do we break down that barrier for volunteers? We’ve got to help teachers and volunteers and then we’ve gotta make sure the kids are having an impact on their reading — that we grow their love of learning, that they have a caring adult besides (a teacher) who is invested in them.”

So where do these volunteers come from? Throughout the community, companies can adopt a classroom where a team of 10 to 20 people from the organization can prepare to become a tutor after completing a background check, self-guided training and self-scheduling on the Vello portal. Then, the volunteers can go on to read with a student for 30 minutes a week throughout the year.

Ginnings said that companies like CitiGroup, BrightRidge and the Johnson City Chamber have already signed up to adopt a classroom.

“I think it’s important for the kids and the volunteers because the kids are not only getting help with their schools, but they’re getting a mentor and a friend to really help them because they may not have that at home,” Ginnings said. “ But it’s important for the volunteers because it shows that they’re actually making a difference in these children’s’ lives, no matter how busy they are in the work force.”

Volunteers are able to connect to the program through their work computer or smartphone where they can connect with students through screen sharing and audio. Once a student puts on a set of headphones and logs on, they are able to pick out an online book to read to their volunteer from the community.

“What happens during these sessions are obviously reading,” DeSpiegelaere said, “but also a relationship is built. Kids get a confidence boost and they get this social, emotional growth.”

The local chapter is the first group to implement the reading program in a Tennessee school system. Ginnings also said the group hopes to add the program to every second grade classroom in Washington County and Johnson City Schools.