LEOMINSTER -- Local office furniture manufacturer AIS has partnered with Leominster Public Schools and the United Way of North Central Massachusetts to volunteer some of its employees to serve as literacy mentors to kindergarten students.
"We think it's a great opportunity and it's what these kids really need," said Early Education Principal James Reilly.
The mentorship program, which is being piloted in eight classrooms at Priest Street School, kicked off Tuesday with a tour of the school with eight AIS employees who will be volunteering as mentors.
As Reilly explained, 99 of the school's 130 students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, placing further strain on their ability to learn how to read.
Each volunteer will be assigned to a single classroom for a commitment of one full school year. Mentors will work with students in groups and individually for one hour every week. “These kids might not have the experiences of other kids growing up and they haven't been exposed to some of the early literacy opportunities that other families may have been able to provide," he said "They also sometimes need another adult in their lives, so to have someone be there for them, and support them and know there's another person rooting for them is an incredible opportunity for these kids."
Several of the mentors are also bilingual, which Reilly said will help get students past the language barrier in learning to read.
Twenty-seven of Priest Street's students only know English as a second language.
AIS President Bruce Platzman said that he was confident that even more of his employees will want to take part in the new program. "I feel like once the word gets out, you'll have a lot more of us participating. We have 600 people over here and I bet we could double this number easily," he said.
AIS employee Meghan Avellaneda said she had gotten interested in being a mentor from watching her six-year-old daughter learn to read in kindergarten. "I was seeing how much fun she was having and how great it was that she got to the point where she could read something to me," she said. "I wanted to be able to help do that for other children."
If the program at Priest Street is a success, district officials and representatives of the United Way hope that it could be expanded into other area schools.
United Way of North Central Massachusetts President Phil Grzewinski said that early childhood literacy is one of the organization's main focuses in the region. "If we need a healthy tomorrow with a strong workforce, you've got to learn to read. Up until third grade you're reading to learn and that's what it's all about," he said.