Ten fourth-grade boys collectively yell “EWWWWW!” as Johnny Rodriguez, 48, read aloud how mold can form on their leftover food. They were sitting in their school’s library, eating their lunch and listening to Rodriguez read The Bacteria Book.
“I love the loud and funny voices he uses,” said Jordan Colson, 10, who attends the Reese Road Leadership Academy in Columbus, Ga. “Mr. Johnny makes reading so fun.”
Rodriguez is a volunteer of the GUYS READ program through Chattahoochee Valley Libraries, an initiative that brings a volunteer “guy” to 17 elementary schools in Muscogee County twice a week for five weeks. Rodriguez has participated since the program launched in 2013.
“Mr. Johnny has become a part of the Reese Road family, and the boys look forward to seeing him,” said Katrina Long, principal of Reese Road Leadership Academy. “GUYS READ provides an awesome opportunity for our boys to see a positive male role model share his passion and love for reading.”
Students are selected for the program because they are reluctant readers performing below grade level and often lack positive male role models in their lives, and the program is for boys specifically because of the gender gap in standardized reading tests. According to Muscogee County test results, 14.1 percent of fourth-grade boys failed to meet Georgia’s reading standard compared to 10.1 percent of fourth-grade girls in 2013-2014.
Anecdotal survey results from Chattahoochee Valley Libraries suggest that participating boys improve their reading as much as one-and-a-half grade levels after starting GUYS READ at least one year below grade level.
“I want these kids to know that they are capable of being whatever they want to be.”
“I want these kids to know that they are capable of being whatever they want to be,” said Rodriguez. “I loved to read growing up, and the skill has provided me with opportunities in life.”
He greets each child with an enthusiastic “Hi!” and he especially encourages one solemn boy with “Let me see that $3,000 smile!”
The boys sit down at a table, and Rodriguez engages them in an interactive conversation about the selected book. Participants from prior year programs wave from the hallway or pop in to say “hi” to Rodriguez throughout the period.
The boys follow along as he reads, raising their hands to interject with comments from “I never get sick!” to “I love cats!” They smile, laugh and hang on his every word.
When the session is nearly finished, the boys line up and shake Rodriguez’s hand. He encourages them to smile, look him and others in the eye and be kind to others. He stresses the importance of gratitude, of thanking people in their lives.
“He is showing these kids that reading is fun and important to their success in life,” said Alan Harkness, director of Chattahoochee Valley Libraries. “But just as important is the mentorship that he provides at a critical moment in their lives.”
The program ends with a wrap-up party at the Columbus Public Library that celebrates the boys and includes their families and GUYS READ volunteers. Each participant is given a book, and additional books are donated to school libraries.
“As a component unit of the local school district, the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries have been tremendously successful in forging strong relationships with educators and media specialists in our community,” said Director Alan Harkness. “We are a natural partner to bridge learning gaps through less traditional models such as special reading programs and library resources that foster reading improvement.”
The program has grown from eight schools to 17, with 170 boys participating in 2019. Chattahoochee Valley Libraries hopes to grow the program to all 32 elementary schools in the district. GUYS READ is funded locally by Wells Fargo.
“It’s fun to read with Mr. Johnny. I can learn from him and make character noises. Reading is an important part of life.” – John Thompson, 10