Helping the youngest readers

Kindergartner Breon Stepney looks forward to his weekly reading session at Barclay Elementary/Middle School with Caroline Bennett, an employee at the Johns Hopkins University. He loves it when she makes funny voices while she's reading his favorite book, "Naughty Little Monkeys."

That kind of bond between Bennett and Breon is exactly what Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso and Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels envisioned when they unveiled Tuesday their new partnership, "Johns Hopkins Takes Time for Schools," which allows the 14,000 employees at Hopkins to take two days of paid leave a year to pursue service opportunities in the school system.

"We know how an education can transform a student's life," Daniels said shortly after reading to a group of first-graders at Barclay with Alonso as part of Read Across America Day. "It takes the talents of many people to set this transformation into motion. It takes dedication and time."

Hopkins is one of the few universities in the country to make such a pledge. Colorado State University has a similar program that encourages students and staff to volunteer, but Hopkins' program is unique in that it solely enlists employees.

Companies paying employees to volunteer their time is becoming more common across the nation. Fifty-three percent of companies surveyed reported having a policy or program that paid employees to pursue volunteer opportunities, according to "Giving in Numbers," a comprehensive study of 2008 corporate giving conducted by the New York-based Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. The report is based on data from 137 companies, including 55 of the Fortune 100.

Commitment to cityPaid release time "is definitely becoming more common ... to offer," said Courtney King, spokeswoman for the committee, who added, "This could be unique among universities."

Alonso said he is amazed by the gesture.

"The fact that an institute will give away days is a tremendous commitment to the city," he said. "It's just an extraordinary investment in the life of the city."

Alonso hopes that the initiative is matched by others in the community.

"We really hope that this becomes a light signal to the rest of the city," he said as he pointed to his tie that was adorned with lighthouses. "We're looking for the community to creatively partner with us."

Bennett, a student/community liaison at Hopkins, is enthusiastic about the time she spends at Barclay reading to Breon.

"I really love the program," Bennett said. "Anything to get more community members into the schools would make our communities a better place."

And her time is helping. "It makes me learn how to read," Breon, 6, said in a voice just above a whisper. "You've got to learn."

In addition to direct interaction with students, Hopkins employees can volunteer their time in areas such as management, administration, facilities and infrastructure improvements, food services, health and wellness, information technology, and public and media relations.

Employees can use the 16 hours for service in increments of their choosing.

Community members also will have an easier time finding volunteer opportunities through the school system's "I Want to Help" computer program, which was launched on its Web site last week. The program matches community members with volunteer opportunities within the school system. More than 40 schools have posted more than 200 volunteer opportunities. The goal is to have every school post volunteer opportunities through the program by the end of the academic year.

The program will allow community members to choose volunteer opportunities based on their area of interest, the school's location and the time of day the activity takes place.

"Service in the city schools is now as easy as shopping online," said Michelle Carlstrom, senior director of Office Work-life and Engagement at Hopkins. "[This program] helps to increase the productivity and worker morale."

Bennett, a resident of Charles Village, is ahead of the curve. She found out about the reading program at Barclay in January through a newsletter and was immediately drawn to the program because of her desire to work with youths. Barclay's proximity to work - a five-minute drive - made it ideal for Bennett's hectic work schedule. She's been going to the school on Wednesdays during her lunch hour.

"It's hard to fit in anything else," said Bennett, who has worked at Hopkins for 17 years. 'This seems to be perfect."

After completing a mandatory background check, Bennett was able to begin reading to Breon almost immediately. The two bonded instantly.

The first day they met, Breon gave Bennett a hug when it was time for her to leave.

"I was sold," Bennett said. "There was no way I could not continue to do it."

Breon loves the fact that Bennett gives an extra effort when she is reading by making him laugh with her funny faces.

"She's my best story pal," he said.

Breon's teacher, Andrea James, thinks it is important for volunteers to work with students.

Another voice"The children get to hear someone other than their teachers," said James. "Sometimes the children don't have anyone to read to them at home. It also helps to give them experiences outside of what they are learning in class."

The students look forward to the volunteers' weekly visits, according to James.

Bennett thinks it's a bonus that Hopkins is now offering two days of pay for service.

"The more outreach we have to the city schools that surround our campuses, the better we are making our community," Bennett said. "And there is a chance that one of these kids will become one of our undergrads."

Bennett plans to expand her voluntarism to a few more students.

"It's convenient and I enjoy it," she said. "I see this continuing and growing."

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