GREENFIELD — There is a special sound Jan Panther associates with learning.

It’s the low rumble that settles in moments after the “good morning” and “how are you today” greetings have been exchanged between students and ReadUP volunteers; as the students open their books and start to read aloud.

In the seven years since the United Way started ReadUP at Harris Elementary School, Panther has turned the program there, which partners an adult with a third-grader who struggles with reading, into a well-oiled machine: The students are in their seats and reading by 7:50 a.m., and the volunteers are done and on their way just before 9.

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But there are a few too many empty volunteer chairs this year, the volunteer coordinator said; and organizers are concerned that without a full roster of helpers, the Greenfield students who participate in ReadUP won’t get the attention they need to succeed. That could mean the difference between at-risk students passing state-required reading tests or not moving on to fourth grade, organizers say.

The program operates at three of the four Greenfield-Central elementary schools — Harris, Weston and J.B. Stephens — with the help of hundreds of volunteers each year. But the number of tutors has dwindled this school year, and the program’s leaders are pleading for help, said Paula Jarrett, Hancock County area director for United Way.

United Way of Central Indiana started ReadUP in Indianapolis Public Schools about 10 years ago, Jarrett said. The program came to Greenfield-Central Schools about seven years ago. Each year, 60 local third-graders identified as struggling with reading are recommended for the program.

More than 140 people signed up to be tutors last school year; that was down to 100 at the start of this school year. The program needs at least 15 more Hancock County volunteers to be successful, Jarrett said.

Without these individuals, the kids might not fulfill the hours they are required to work with a tutor, Jarrett said; the effects are the same as if a football team didn’t have enough coaches or if a tennis team didn’t have enough time on the court, she said.

“They wouldn’t be champions,” she said. “It take practice, practice, practice. And it’s the same with reading.”

Many students enrolled in the ReadUP program read one-half to two grade levels below where they should be, Jarrett said, which means most of the third-grade students who participate are reading at a first-grade level.

ReadUP targets third-grade students because at that level reading takes on a different role in a child’s education, Jarrett said. From first grade to third grade, students are learning to read; once they pass into fourth grade, they are reading to learn, she said.

Organizers’ goal is to have kids read with an adult for at least 50 half-hour sessions each school year, Panther said. Traditionally, Greenfield-Central students end up having more one-on-one time than that, which benefits them in the long run, she said.

Greenfield-Central keeps records that suggest how helpful the ReadUP program has been to the district, assistant superintendent Ann Vail said. Each year, more ReadUP students pass the state-mandated I-READ3 assessment, which determines if students have the reading skills to move on to fourth grade.

In 2012, when I-READ3 first became a required test, 88 percent of the ReadUP students passed the assessment, Vail said. That number jumped to 94 percent in 2013 and to 98 percent in 2014. The district held steady in 2015 with 97 percent of ReadUP participants passing the reading test.

“With … that regular tutor helping them in ReadUP, we’re seeing really tremendous success for those students,” Vail said.

ReadUP volunteers sign up to help for one hour a week at any of the three elementary schools that participate, Jarrett said. The sessions are scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings for one hour. The tutor sits with two students for 30 minutes each. Those who sign up must complete a brief training course and pass a background check.

Volunteers represent a broad cross-section of the community, Panther said. In her ReadUP room, there are high school students, retirees, hospital workers, bankers and more.

Evelyn Haas, 14, comes to Harris in the mornings to read with kids and then walks or skateboards over to Greenfield-Central High School in time for her own classes to start.

She started volunteering after watching her little sister struggle with reading. She said she wanted make time to help and serve as someone the ReadUP students could look up to.

School officials say they understand it can be for people to find time in their schedules to volunteer, but most helpers don’t regret the experience.

“We’ve found that once we get a volunteer to come into our building, they really fall in love with the program,” said Jan Kehrt, principal at Harris.

Get involved

ReadUP is offered at Harris, Weston and J.B. Stephens elementary schools on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings. Volunteers agree to commit one hour a week during the school year to reading with a student at one of three schools.

To sign up, call Jeannie Roberts at 317-4144-8288 or email jeannie.roberts@uwci.org.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.