High school ambassadors for literacy

Through the Preface program, students from Berkmar High work on literacy issues with youngsters at nearby Hopkins Elementary.

Through the Preface program, students from Berkmar High work on literacy issues with youngsters at nearby Hopkins Elementary.

As with most programs in a COVID world, the Preface project that pairs Berkmar High students with elementary school readers has had to shift the way it works. But the ultimate aim remains the same: helping youngsters from broadly diverse backgrounds improve and perfect their reading skills.

The program began at Berkmar in the fall of 2019 when about a dozen teens completed several hours of orientation and training sessions. They then headed to Lilburn Elementary where they hosted after-school literacy lessons and one-on-one sessions. Last fall, Berkmar students began working with young readers from kindergarten through second grade at Hopkins Elementary.

“It’s very much a community collaboration,” said Cindy Moffett, Berkmar’s assistant principal. “We don’t come in with a prescribed curriculum. Our students are there to support teachers who have very diverse learners and to meet individual needs. I love that it’s about supporting what the school needs and adjusting to whatever needs occur.”

Berkmar’s Preface “ambassadors” are particularly adept at working with others from diverse backgrounds, said Moffett, since the Lilburn school’s student body represents more than 80 countries.

“Many of our students know what it’s like to be one of those new or emerging readers,” she said. “They’re also used to helping each other understand what’s going on. For the younger students, how cool is it to have someone like your big sister or brother providing help?”

Preface’s founder, JT Wu, remembers being part of the county’s diverse study body. He grew up in Gwinnett where for many students, English is not the first language.

“That diversity presents a unique set of challenges,” said Wu. “When I learned that 57% of our kids were struggling with literacy, I was inspired to make an impact. By training and empowering high school students to meet these young ones where they are, we’re seeing kids go from functionally illiterate to reading on grade level in several weeks.”

The project also has benefits for the teens, said Moffett. “They get training to help them maximize their gifts and their diversity. They get to work with our younger students and put those volunteer hours on their resumes. And they can connect to a young professional network that helps them write those resumes.”

In Georgia, the project is only operational in Gwinnett, but it has also expanded into eight other states, and Wu hopes more will follow once schools are fully reopened. Meanwhile, even as the pandemic has made face-to-face sessions impractical, the work hasn’t stopped.

“This year we’ve been virtual, with ambassadors working with two or three students in 20- and 30-minute time slots,” he said. “Mentorship remains a powerful force with the potential for positive impact. The more peer-to-peer interaction we can get, that’s where the most benefit will be.”

Information about Preface is online at prefaceproject.org. Berkmar High details https://www.gcpsk12.org/BerkmarHS

SEND US YOUR STORIES. Each week we look at programs, projects and successful endeavors at area schools, from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H.M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or 770-744-3042.