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Bookworms program connects students with a wide variety of needs

Last summer, Kensington Health Sciences Academy special education teacher Edward Colfer had an idea for a senior community service project: a program that would allow students with learning disabilities or behavioral needs to teach elementary school students to read.

Colfer, now the primary facilitator for the program, named the project “Bookworms.” For students in the individual education program at KHSA, it’s an opportunity to fill the community service requirement all seniors need to graduate. 

At first, the students were a bit hesitant to get involved.

“I introduced the idea to the class, and I had a lot of resistance because they [didn’t] want to go to another school,” Colfer said. “My students lack confidence, so we had to start with small pieces.”

A reading coach from the Mayor’s Office of Education came into his classroom to help the students with their skills and offer them tips on how to read to other students. After a few weeks of practicing, the students were ready to begin reading. They began with each other, then eventually to the life skills students at KHSA, who are students in the special education program with more life-altering disabilities. 

Colfer said he began reaching out to local elementary schools like H.A. Brown, which opened up a new door of opportunities. By Christmas, Colfer said he’d hit a “home-run” with student involvement in the Bookworms. 

“Once we started working with the life skills students, my kids started to buy into the program,” Colfer said. “By the end of the year, they always looked forward to working with other students.”

The program began spreading to different elementary schools and other parts of the community. Elkins Elementary students would visit the Kensington Library and the children’s librarian reached out to Colfer to ask for the Bookworms to read to the students.

Tim Horras, a librarian at the Kensington Library, was excited Colfer brought the Bookworm students to the library. Horras, who works specifically with children, feels public libraries are an important community resource, as well as vital to education.

“Some of [the students] would come and not only would get books for their readings they would do for the kids, but they would pick up a book for themselves to read,” Horras said. “Just seeing them read for leisure was really good. Literacy is a really important skill.”

Horras said the library is particularly helpful because of the number of resources it has, as well as its accessibility and familiarity to neighborhood students. 

“It’s important for the high school students to get a sense of giving back to the community,” Horras said. “If [elementary students] see an older student reading, they may get an interest in the book or see themselves reading if they’re having trouble. It serves as a role model, and that’s very important.”

Eventually, students outside of the individual education program started to get involved with Bookworms. Now it includes a mix of the entire student body.

When 19-year-old KHSA senior Alexis Sanabria began volunteering with the Bookworms in November she initially thought it wasn’t for her. 

“At first, I was super nervous because kids can be sometimes a little much,” said Sanabria. “But as I kept going back and back, it was a great experience and I feel like I opened up more.” 

Now, the reading program is made up of three parts: reading, arts and crafts, and team building. For the first 20 minutes of class, the Bookworms read books to elementary school students, followed by another 20 minutes of coloring activities or penmanship skills. Then, there are 15 minutes of team building games like charades or Pictionary.

Sanabria said the program has made her cheerful and feels like she has gained leadership skills. 

“My favorite part about [the program] is the gaming,” Sanabria said. “We get to play games that show off everyone’s personalities. We can all be together as one. That was my favorite, favorite part of it.”

For 17-year-old senior Joshua Mas, Bookworms doubles as a lesson in life skills.

“When I was younger, no one really gave me the needs and attention that I wanted — that I needed,” Mas said. “Every kid wants attention. I wanted to get experience in being somewhat of a teacher.”

Mas said Colfer encouraged him to join the program. Though Mas was initially nervous to speak in front of other people, over time he was able to brush off his nerves.

“My students are gaining so much confidence in their social skills, reading skills, communication skills, and leadership skills,” Colfer said in an email. “[They] are learning how to access resources that are offered in their community.”

Sanabria said the program has taught her a lot about working with children, something she will take with her after high school.

“For me, I’ve learned patience with kids. I’m going to take this outside [of high school]. Future-wise, if I work with kids or have kids of my own, you need patience with kids,” Sanabria said. “Everybody’s different, and everybody learns a certain way.”

For Mas, Bookworms helped prepare him for an important role in his life.

“[I learned] to be cooperative and patient with kids. I just had a daughter, so it’s kind of good experience for me,” Mas said. “It helped me be a better role model than what I was.”

Mas now reads to his daughter every night.

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Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte