YMCA program helps improve reading at Ruediger

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

For a second consecutive year, Denny Clark is trying to help children in a Title 1 schools improve their reading skills.

His passion for the program at Ruediger Elementary School is undeniable. Clark, a certified performance and engagement coach, says he has engrossed himself into the program for two reasons – he once was in the same place as some of his students and he enjoys establishing a relationship with the children.

Knowing the children and their background is essential, Clark said.

“Getting to know the kids and working with some that I worked with last year, to see them reading books together, I don’t have to prompt them,” he said. “They practice with their articulation of the words so that it comes out fluently and strong and they are confident.”

Megan Smith, a volunteer with the YMCA Reads program at Ruediger Elementary, helps students identify words to sharpen their reading skills.
Photo courtesy Lauren Sima

The program at Ruediger is part of YMCA Reads, which is also set up at 13 other schools in Florida, according to Lauren Sima, a certified teacher and site coordinator. Ruediger is one of only four YMCA Reads programs in North Florida, with the other three being in Jacksonville.

“We have had huge success every year,” Sima said. “They might be six months behind, but we try to get them on target. Every child learns differently so it’s just at their own pace.”

Several of the students, who are in first through third grade, are in need of intervention reading, Sima said. Many are reading as many as three years below grade level.

Just reading below grade level isn’t the only criteria for getting into the program, said Sima, who has to evaluate more than 50 areas to determine each child’s eligibility.

Sima might not have been working with the program if she wasn’t hired by First Coast YMCA in Jacksonville. She started with the Capital Region YMCA in Tallahassee, but that program shut down in 2017 after years of struggling through financial woes.

The program is a collaboration between the Florida Department of Education and YMCA. It’s funded through legislative appropriations of about $700,000 annually.

Consistency is one of the reasons that the program continues, said John Trombetta, vice president of Operations for the Florida Alliance of YMCAs and Foundation.

“It’s important just in making sure that each student around the state is getting the same experience and quality of programming,” Trombetta said.

This is the sixth year for the reading program at Ruediger Elementary. However, the statewide program started 15 years ago.

Clark is considered a leader among volunteers who give a few hours each week to help children who in several cases don’t get reading help at home. Some come from adoptive homes and other might be raised by a grandmother.

In addition to Clark, who also works as a HR management consultant with the Florida Department of Children and Families, the other volunteers are students at FAMU and FSU.

On Monday and Tuesday each week, 25 of the kids have reading classes, Another 25 get their reading time on Wednesdays and Thursdays. All total, the students get two and a half hours of extra reading time.

The children started this school year with some new books that came from a fund-raising initiative by Clark. He used social media to help raise $1,200 for books.

Most of the books are based on subjects that the students prefer, but each session includes working with System of Phonological Awareness and Phoenix to help them associate sound to reading and pronunciation, said Sima.

They begin the reading program after a full day of classes, but not before they are fed a snack.

“They get a pretty substantial meal when they come to us so they have full bellies when they come to tutoring,” Sima said. “As you know, an empty belly makes it really hard to concentrate.”

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