United Way announces $500,000 grant for Bibb County reading program

A new grant could help the United Way of Central Georgia boost the reading level of students across Bibb County.

The $500,000 AARP Foundation grant, announced Tuesday at the organization's annual meeting, will bolster Read2Succeed tutoring efforts already in place at 10 of the 23 elementary schools in the district.

In receiving the grant, Macon joins cities such as Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

"This is a pretty big win for this community to get this," said George McCanless, president and CEO of United Way of Central Georgia.

The group already has more than 100 tutors serving almost 400 students in 10 Bibb County elementary schools: Brookdale, Bruce, Burdell-Hunt, Hartley, Ingram-Pye, Martin Luther King Jr., Morgan, Riley, Southfield and Williams.

Third-graders at nine of those schools, all except Hartley, were tested for reading scores based on grade-level ability in the fall and again at the beginning of spring semester.

In those schools, 106 third-graders were in the United Way's tutoring program, and those students saw improvements in their reading scores. School averages for students in the program increased by at least 50 points, with Bruce's students averaging an increase of almost 170 points.

"When you see a child's scores shoot from here to here over a matter of a two-month period, you really know that what you're doing is making an impact," said Shelton Land, United Way of Central Georgia's education program manager.

Sylvia McGee, who served as a deputy superintendent as well as an interim superintendent for the Bibb County school system, will direct the grant-funded tutoring, which will focus on an Experience Corps of volunteers who are ages 50 and older. Those volunteers will receive training both in being a tutor as well as establishing relationships with the students.

Volunteers will also need to commit to 35 weeks of working with students in small groups or, preferably, one on one.

"This is not just a feel-good program. It's a very intense program," McGee said.

The four-year grant will add up to 150 Experience Corps volunteers at the same 10 schools. With about 50 percent of Bibb County's third-graders having tested below a third-grade reading level, McCanless said, United Way officials believe more tutors could make a big difference.

"It means a lot to know that you're touching more people and impacting more lives," Land said.

McGee is also excited about the details of the program.

The ability to establish real connections with older adults could have benefits besides reading. She said many of Bibb County's students may not have contact with grandparents, while grandparents are raising other children, so they might not have the relationship many of us picture with older generations.

"I think it's important that the intergenerational piece is key," McGee said. "It's going to help the social, emotional, behavioral piece. Those pieces are going to strengthen the child."

Leaders with the program were also direct about the importance of getting volunteers into the schools, particularly to help with reading.

"We've got a real epidemic," McGee said of literacy issues, referring to Lester Strong, national CEO of the Experience Corps initiative. "Using volunteers is a vaccine for reading."

In 2014, Bibb County leaders announced that they would receive about $1.3 million to enhance early childhood education, helping improve children's classroom skills before they finished the third grade.

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331 or find him on Twitter@MTJTimm.