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"Reading to Learn" | New program aims to boost literacy levels in East Tennessee after unconventional school year

Big Brothers Big Sisters of East TN pairs students in Title I elementary schools with a mentor to work on reading activities for one hour a week.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A new reading program is aiming to improve literacy rates for hundreds of kids in East Tennessee -- during a year where COVID-19 changed our idea of school.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee, with support from Amerigroup,  launched a Reading to Learn initiative in Knoxville last month. 

The goal of the program is to establish a "firm foundation for students at Title I schools in the Knoxville area," according to a statement from the organization.

Reading to Learn matches mentors with kids in those elementary schools to participate in reading activities together for one hour a week during the school year. 

It was first launched in the Tri-Cities with the support of private donors in November 2018. 

BBBS of East Tennessee said of the students who participated, 80% maintained or improved their grades in all subjects, and 90% improved or maintained their language arts grades.

Credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters

Brent Waugh, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee said the plan is to also expand the program to Anderson, Blount, and Sevier counties.

According to 2020 data by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, here's the percentage of students who scored "proficient" or "advanced" on the TNReady reading and language test:

But, of course, that was before the pandemic. Waugh said that through recent surveys, he found that many parents were concerned about educational opportunities for their kids. This comes at a time where children are doing virtual school at a higher rate, or even full-time, with less personalized interactions and instruction from their teachers.

In fact, state leaders said in September that they expect literacy rates in Tennessee to drastically drop because of COVID-19.

RELATED: TN Legislative Special Session begins Tuesday with education focus

"One of the great things about the Reading to Learn program is that it ensures that their kid has that one-on-one time with a mentor to encourage reading activities together, and to make sure that their reading activities are being followed up on as well," Waugh told 10News. 

"We all know that teachers and school staff have so much on them right now, so we're thrilled to be able to offer this extra support through Reading to Learn," Waugh added.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee says it will serve 40 mentees in the first year, and 50 mentees in the second. The funding covers the cost of books, activities, and youth and family support from a caseworker, the statement said.

Some background: 

Big Brothers Big Sisters is an organization that "defends potential in children" through "supported one-on-one relationships," the agency said.

But there are not enough mentors right now in East Tennessee. Waugh said there are more than 100 kids on the waiting list.

Click here to become a mentor or volunteer a couple of hours of your time.

Read more about what it's like to be a mentor:

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