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Portland nonprofit SMART Reading goes virtual to keep kids engaged in reading

Before the pandemic, SMART was operating at nearly 300 schools across Oregon and pairing almost 12,000 students with reading volunteers.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The pandemic hasn't stopped the important work of a well-known nonprofit that's been helping kids read for decades.

SMART Reading has been around for almost 30 years in Oregon. Before the pandemic, it was operating at nearly 300 sites across the state, pairing almost 12,000 students with volunteers to read at school.

The pandemic changed that. But SMART has still been able to find ways to keep kids excited about and engaged in reading.

Without the ability to send volunteers into schools, SMART is able to do something similar, just in a virtual environment.

SMART Reading's executive director, Chris Otis, walked KGW through the process. It starts with going to an online platform or website that a volunteer helped build.

“It’s our virtual story room, and we pick out a book and we page through it. It is almost like having that book in front of you, and it’s so cool,” said Otis.

Credit: SMART Reading
SMART Reading Virtual Story Room

Otis said right now, the virtual story room has about 30 books available to read and is getting piloted at more than a dozen schools, involving a couple hundred students. She said the plan is to keep expanding the number of schools involved. Because of the virtual setting, Otis said whenever a volunteer is paired up to read with a child virtually, there’s also another adult who joins and observes as an added measure of security.

Ashley Agre is a first grade teacher at Buckman Elementary in Portland. She said first grade is a pivotal year when it comes to learning how to read and teaching kids how to read online has been difficult.

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“It’s been hard because of course first graders aren’t very technologically savvy, and they have very short attention spans as well,” said Agre.

She said she’s excited that her school is getting on board with SMART’s virtual story room pilot program.

“I love the SMART program because it really helps kids develop a love of reading. I find it really helpful for kids with lagging skills,” said Agre.

She said in addition to reading skills, SMART helps kids develop important social skills as they interact one-on-one with adults, who often become role models in their lives.

“I am a huge fan of the SMART program. I think that they provide an invaluable service to schools especially during COVID times because there’s only so much teachers can do. Like we’re already spread really thin,” Agre said.

“We often think of reading as being sort of the gateway skill for academics. But I would say it’s the gateway skill for life,” said Otis.

Otis said SMART has never stopped giving out books. Since the pandemic started, the organization has handed out almost 100,000 books. 

Credit: SMART Reading
Kids getting books from SMART Reading during the pandemic

Last year marked a milestone for the organization when Otis said SMART Reading had handed out its 3-millionth book.

She said each of the books also had a QR code that kids or parents could scan that would bring them to a video of a volunteer reading the book aloud.

RELATED: Some school districts in Portland area begin hybrid learning, others starting soon

SMART Reading event this Friday for kids, families and supporters

If you’re interested in supporting SMART Reading, this Friday a full-day online event is scheduled to take place. Starting at 9 a.m., volunteers and big names like Portland Timbers mascot Timber Joey, Dateline NBC’s Keith Morrison, WNBA player and former Oregon Duck Ruthy Hebard and NFL quarterback and former Duck Marcus Mariota will be virtually reading books aloud to kids who are tuning in as part of its Oregon Reads Aloud program.

Here's a rundown of some of the recognizable faces you will see reading kids books aloud

  • Between 9-10 a.m.: NFL Quarterback Marcus Mariota and Pro Baseball Player Andrew Moore
  • Between 10-10:30 a.m.: Portland Timbers Mascot Timber Joey 
  • Between 11:45-12:45 p.m.: NBC’s Keith Morrison of Dateline 
  • Between 1:45-2:30 p.m.: WNBA Player and Oregon Duck Ruthy Hebard
  • Between 2:30-3:30 p.m.: KGW-TV reporter Christine Pitawanich
  • Between 3:30-4:30 p.m.: Napoleon Dynamite Star Jon Heder 

Volunteers from different parts of Oregon will be reading throughout the day as well. 

Then at 6 p.m., there will be an online fundraiser. You can learn more about the organization and find all the information on the day-long event on the SMART Reading website.

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