"Is something on my head?"
"There is a bird on my head?"
To a kid, it's a laugh-out-loud silly story by Mo Willems.
To a Reading Seed coach, it's way more.
Reading the story together, the coach and the child practice reading words like "on my head" over and over, improving skills and giving the child confidence about reading.
Those are key things many children in poverty miss out on - and low literacy makes it more likely they'll drop out, land in juvenile detention or work for low pay, causing the cycle of poverty to repeat.
Reading Seed is a program that pairs elementary-school children who are behind in reading skills with volunteers who tutor and mentor them each week. The kids also get books to take home and keep - something many of them don't have.
The need is great: 18,000 local kids in kindergarten through third grade could benefit from a reading coach, says Betty Stauffer, executive director of Literacy Connects, the umbrella organization that includes Reading Seed. Most of them attend schools in low-income areas.
A study of test scores shows the program works. Kids learn faster and catch up with their classmates. And simply showing a kid that someone cares enough to show up and see them every week can make an impression strong enough to last a lifetime, child development experts say.
But the program budget and staff are stretched thin. It will be available in only 60 local schools this year, down from 93 last year.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and groups like Rotary Club of Tucson think Reading Seed is one solution to Tucson's poverty problem. The mayor has committed to help recruit 500 new coaches and Rotary has helped fund the program since 2004.
As the Arizona Daily Star concludes its Losing Ground project, the newspaper is kicking off a campaign to raise money and recruit coaches for the program.
Reading Seed students are one-half to three grade levels behind their classmates in reading skills.
To catch up, they have to learn faster than their peers.
Coaches, who are trained to help kids improve their reading, are usually retirees and winter visitors because of the time commitment of at least an hour a week - 30 minutes each for two kids.
Until now, coaches signed up at whatever school they chose. But to make the biggest impact, as of this year Reading Seed wants to funnel volunteers into the schools where they're needed the most.
Dearwyn Knittel, known to her students at Vesey Elementary in Drexel Heights as "Miss Howdy," is beginning her seventh school year as a Reading Seed coach.
She loves laughing with kids as together they read a Mo Willems book like "There Is a Bird On Your Head!"
The first-graders she works with usually haven't memorized their sight words in Kindergarten and, oftentimes, "getting to school isn't a priority" for their parents, she says.
"Kids get to practice reading and getting read to by a caring adult who's really paying attention to them and where they feel safe making mistakes," says program director Tamara McKinney.
Miss Howdy's connections with students run deep.
Once, one of her students was in foster care and had to change schools. She surprised him by showing up at the new school. She couldn't let him down, she says - the boy "just needed a grandma."
Knittel typically sees "aha moments" each year around the holidays. First, students feel confident sounding out words. Then they don't have to sound them out at all.
In a study of test scores at the beginning and end of the school year, Reading Seed students' test scores improved 36 percent more than students who did not participate.
GROUP "STRETCHED THIN"
Reading Seed is struggling to maintain its reach and to grow.
It started asking schools to contribute $1,500 a year or to help the organization raise money. "We're stretched so thin," McKinney said
No schools are turned away, she said, but some schools are choosing not to participate.
Expenses were $238,821 last year, according to the Form 990 filed by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit group Literacy Connects, which is Reading Seed's parent organization. That covers four staff members' salaries, utilities, background checks for volunteers and program materials.
Money donated by Arizona Daily Star readers will help hire more staff, which will reduce the high coach-to-staff ratio and allow the organization to take on more coaches.
Reading Seed doesn't pay rent, because Goodwill of Southern Arizona has donated space for offices, a lending library and book storage since 2004.
Thousands of books are donated by Discover Books each year. But Reading Seed pays for training materials, book cleaning and repair materials, book labels, reading journals and medals for kids who complete the program.
Reading Seed by the numbers
local children who participated last school year
minutes per week a coach spends with each student
schools in the program last school year
schools in the program this school year
free books distributed to kids each year
Contact reporter Becky Pallack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4251. On Twitter @BeckyPallack.