Merlene Davis: Fraternity members mentor students to build relationships, help achieve reading goals

Some of the prizes students can earn in the "Reading, Writing, and Rewards" program wait on a shelf at the school.
Some of the prizes students can earn in the "Reading, Writing, and Rewards" program wait on a shelf at the school.

Ja'Mariee Jones, 9, is on a mission.

The William Wells Brown Elementary fourth-grader wants to be a distinguished reader, the highest level of reading achievement for students in Kentucky.

"I want to be a distinguished reader because then you know you have passed grade level," she said. "And then you can read without someone telling you you did something wrong."

But there is more behind the mission than personal growth.

"I want to be a teacher," she continued. "If I am a distinguished reader, I can teach my students how to be distinguished readers."

Currently, Ja'Mariee is at the proficient level, but she's working her way steadily upward by participating in the "Reading, Writing and Rewards" program at her school. The program was created by the University of Kentucky and the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity's Education Foundation.

Through it, about 30 fourth- and fifth-graders are getting extra help and encouragement from fraternity members who visit them every Thursday.

"We were trying to do something to focus on elementary school students," said Kenneth Jones, associate professor in Community & Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky. But the program also offers scholarships for high school students and an essay contest for middle school students.

After talking with Butch Emerson, the family-community liaison at WWB who is also a fellow fraternity member, the group started the program last year with 20 students whose Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores were below grade level at the beginning of the school year.

The chosen students meet in the library each day for 45 minutes before school starts with Emerson and librarian Karen Morrison.

"That is time dedicated to reading and writing," Emerson said. "When we were letting them read on their own, we didn't see much progress. But when they started coming here, we saw progress."

Jones said they became a cohesive group with one goal: to learn. They are surrounded by like-minded students, he said, just like a basketball team.

Three surveys are conducted with the students each year to determine if the students are showing any progress in reading and writing skills, Jones explained. The second survey last school year revealed that 50 percent of the students had increased their test scores and most were reading more books than before, going from one book a month to one book a week.

For each book read and each summary written and corrected, the student scores points. But none of the points are awarded until a parent's signature is attached.

With the points, the students can purchase prizes. Plus, they get to keep the books they read.

The Alpha Beta Lambda Chapter, which also hosts the annual Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King Day, furnishes the books and the prizes. Machaia Cooper won prizes Thursday for reading her sixth book since October. She wants to be a police officer.

On Thursdays, the mentoring component of the program comes into play. Last week, about eight fraternity members met with the students, some of whom waited quietly in line for their turn.

The men, some of whom were on their lunch breaks from work, discussed the books the students had read, asking questions and pointing out roles of main characters. They also reviewed the one-page written summaries.

At the end of the year, the students and their parents are taken on a field trip. Last year it was to the Newport Aquarium and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

Also last year, two students earned Kindles for their hard work. Three students will receive a Kindle this year.

William Wells Brown Principal Jay Jones Jr. said he welcomes community partnerships as long as the programs have structure and a means of showing the program is beneficial to the students. The Alphas have done that, he said.

"These men are coming here and showing that what they are doing is beneficial," he said. "They are building relationships."

Not all the students progress at the same pace, but still they come.

"Last year, two kids asked if they could have more time in here," Emerson said.

There is no greater praise than that.

If you would like to help support the "Reading, Writing and Rewards" program, send donations to Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, P.O. Box 1248, Lexington, Ky., 40588.