Chicago nonprofit gives kids reading mentors, and motivation, to promote literacy


By Liz Hoffman

Web Editor

It's 4 p.m. and the final bell has already run at the Chicago International Charter School's Bucktown campus, nestled on a short block of North Hamilton Avenue between a rectory and the expressway.

But on a second-floor classroom, about two dozen students aren't yet done with the day's lessons. Paired with an adult, they settle in for an hour of reading as part of a nonprofit outreach program taking a big swing at literacy problems in Chicago.

Cameron, a second-grader sporting a CICS dark blue polo shirt, cracks open a book about dinosaurs with Roger, a retired social worker. MacKenzie and Mina peruse the bookcase. Megan, a recent elementary education graduate, sits next to Adrian, a second-grader with a mop of brown hair.

This is Open Books Buddies, which pairs students at Chicago elementary schools with a mentor from the community. Now in its second year, Open Books Buddies is a relatively new entry into the Chicago literacy scene, and has its focus squarely on kids.

For an hour each week, all year long, the pairs read together at 12 public and charter schools across Chicago. Is Open Books Buddies at your child's school?

"We live in a city where half the kids don't graduate from high school," says program director Anna Piepmeyer. "We're trying to get them early, to get them engaged and keep them engaged. Otherwise, the odds are stacked against them."

Groups like Open Books are battling those odds with consistency and accountability. Kids meet with the same mentor each week and sign a contract at the beginning of the year. They keep a list of all the books they finish and track their reading-level progress with program staff.

"I think seeing the same face every week, and them knowing that we're going to be here when they walk in the door is really important," says Megan Crist, a volunteer with Open Books.

Open Books' energetic staff of nine spends its weekday afternoons hopping from school to school in their brightly colored shirts - "we always say we go around looking like Skittles," Piepmeyer says. The group runs a used bookstore in River North and uses the profits to fund its programming, which also includes writing workshops and one-on-one mentoring.

While the students work on the nuts and bolts of reading, the students are also growing their vocabularies -- and their confidence. The classroom at Chicago International Charter School is full of long, drawn-out syllables as kids try out new words.

"We take a very creative approach to education and we're all about the love of reading," Piepmeyer says. "Our hope is that students ... will develop that little seed that will grow into a lifelong enthusiasm for reading and the written word."

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