PAL program making a difference 20 years later

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Beth Barclay, a former custodian at Coalhurst Elementary School, reads to a classroom of students following an assembly to celebrate the PAL program’s 20th anniversary at the school.

COALHURST – They say it takes a village to raise a child. Coalhurst Elementary School has proven community is also key in raising a life-long reader.

The school recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Partnership Association for Literacy (PAL) program with a special assembly that included song and dance, poetry and both past and present supporters reading aloud to classrooms of children. Students were also encouraged to dress up as their favourite literary character.

The goal of the PAL program is to turn students on to books and help them realize that reading is fun through one-on-one tutoring. Students work with reading pals including older students, staff members and Coalhurst seniors.

It is not only the struggling students who benefit from the program, says Ted Likuski, one of the original PAL board members. The volunteer readers also gain a sense of satisfaction through giving back, and in some cases improve their own reading skills.

“When I was vice-principal here I had students in Grades 6 who weren’t high-level readers, but because they were tutors in training they worked so hard to improve their reading skills so they would be good for the person they were reading with,” he says.

Over cake and coffee afterwards, Beth Barclay’s eyes lit up as she recalled working with a child who went from reluctant reader to a student sad to see the school year come to a close. The former custodian felt so strongly about the PAL program she wrote a poem about her experiences and read it at the assembly.

“You feel soooo good when you have found,

The key to bring your pal around,

To loving books as much as you

Well – even half as much will do,” read Barclay, in part.

Likuski notes the connections formed through the PAL program, especially those with the senior readers, allows the students to see the community in a way they wouldn’t otherwise.

The PAL program was born out of a frustration among teachers, parents and students that there wasn’t enough time for one-on-one reading help, he says. The school’s special education teacher heard of the success similar programs were enjoying and was successful in applying for a grant to start it at Coalhurst Elementary School.

That first year reading pals were found for 18 students. Now upwards of 40 students are benefitting each year. The Pal Program is unique in the province not only because of its paid co-ordinator, but the fact it provides 12 hours of training to each new tutor, as well as ongoing resources and support.

“It’s not just reading buddies; it is a step above that,” says Likuski of the training provided. “We have parents who say they wish they could learn how to do this, so they could teach their kids better when they were reading to them at home.”

While casino funds pay for the program’s co-ordinator, Lori Walker, it also relies on funding from other sources. Among those community partners are the Coalhurst Legion and Telus, the latter which donated $1,000 to the program this year.

The PAL program involves reading at school, but the assembly also highlighted Family Literacy Day. Walker says the importance of parents reading to and with their children can’t be emphasized enough.

“We send books home for them to read, because lots of families don’t have books in their homes,” she says. “They need to start right from birth to Grade 12. Keep those kids reading.”