Thursday, April 24, 2014 · 2:16 a.m.
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Woodmore Elementary students Kmya Johnson and Briasia Peek decorate their journal cover sheets at the Bookworm Club. (Photo: Staff)

A new Girls Inc. program is giving first- and second-graders a jump-start on reading and writing proficiency and a chance to proudly call themselves book wormies.

The Bookworm Club, which serves as a comprehensive after-school program with a literacy element, was started at Woodmore Elementary and East Ridge Elementary on Sept. 17 and 19, respectively. It will run until the end of the academic year and is held two days a week from 3 to 6 p.m. at each school.

“One of the reasons we’re targeting this age group is that they’re still so young that they don’t have that knee-jerk reaction to the word ‘learn’ that makes some older kids,” said Suzie Kramer, who along with Annette Richardson is a program coordinator for the Bookworm Club. “One of the things I’m excited about is not just to teach reading and writing skills but to teach [them] to love to read and write. A lot of the kids are eager to learn. They are all at different levels, but they are all excited to learn, and that’s what is going to be the most important.”

The program emerged from a surprising discovery during a Girls Inc. visit to Hardy Elementary School, located in the Avondale and East Chattanooga communities. When asked to name a favorite book, the group of 10- and 11-year-olds didn’t have an answer.

The staff of Girls Inc. of Chattanooga is using United Way's New Opportunities Grant, as well as funds from Amazon Fulfillment, the Chattanooga Rotary Club and the Weldon F. Osborne Foundation, to ensure that question is no longer difficult to answer for girls in Chattanooga. The organization researched where the grant would help achieve that goal, as well as facilitate new partnerships with Woodmore Elementary and East Ridge Elementary.

Kramer, Richardson and Toccora Johnson, manager of elementary-age programs at Girls Inc. of Chattanooga, have worked with teachers and principals to build the voluntary programs up to their enrollment capacity of 12 first-graders and 12 second-graders at both schools. The two Bookworm Clubs will be the models for what is hoped to be a larger Hamilton County program.

“We thought of a proactive approach to introduce reading and writing to girls in the first and second grade, so that when they get in the third grade and start doing the TCAP, they are not just then introduced to and understand the importance of reading and writing,” Johnson said. “Everything we’re doing now is a stepping stone.”

Girls Inc.'s Toccora Johnson works with Briasia Peek. (Photo: Staff)

The Hamilton County academic report card supports Girls Inc.’s assessment of the need for literacy efforts to build on the work done in the classroom: In 2010 and 2011, students scored a D in reading, according to the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System evaluation.

Based primarily on the national Girls Inc. curriculum GIRLStart, the Bookworm Club syllabus incorporates age and reading level-appropriate elements from state standards. The three-hour schedule begins with a snack and a literacy activity and ends with 45 minutes of Fun and Fitness, a block of time dedicated to physical activity.

In between, students have homework time and Choices, a three-station rotation of a writing prompt, reading exercise and an interactive exercise that further builds reading and writing skills, such as board games, "bananagrams," puppet shows and spelling bees. The Bookworm Club plans to make use of a myriad of mediums—storytelling, poetry, recipes, plays, public speaking and even research—to inspire an early affinity for reading and writing. 

Woodmore second-grader Laila Lopez is already well on her way to a lifelong love of the written word. Her favorite books include anything by Dr. Seuss and the Harry Potter series.

“I like reading because you’re using your imagination. It’s like you’re inside the book,” she explained. “It’s like watching TV, but the pictures don’t move.”

On a recent Tuesday, Lopez and her fellow book wormies decorated cover sheets for their writing journals with drawings of basketball hoops and hearts. Johnson instructed the students to close their eyes and think about how they wanted the front cover to look.

After 15 seconds, she asked if everyone had an idea. The answer? A resounding cheer from strong, smart, bold girls: “Yes!”

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