For five years, Stephanie Ferguson has been the driving force behind the Reader Leader program in St. Francisville.

The Reader Leader for first-graders at Bains Lower Elementary is designed to promote early childhood literacy by partnering community volunteers with students to provide reading support. Each volunteer sets aside 30 minutes every week to work one-on-one with a student to develop important skills such as decoding, sight word recognition and vocabulary development. They also share the joy of reading for pleasure.

Ferguson, the program’s founder, is passionate about Reader Leader.

“It got started when our oldest son, Benjamin, was in first grade and I noticed some children were struggling with reading,” Ferguson said. “My husband, Jim, volunteered in public schools in Baton Rouge and would help with math. I thought that was really important, and I talked to the principal at the time who was for it and I started seeking volunteers by emailing and promoting it. I’m always trying to find more people to read with students.”

Teachers recommend students in the seven first-grade classes because Ferguson said that’s when the students learn how to read and they really want to read. About 30 volunteers are ready as the new school year begins.

“At first, volunteers don’t realize the impact on the children,” Ferguson said. “And they come out totally rewarded themselves.”

She said many of the children are still reading below grade level and may not have anyone at home to read with them.

“I’ve seen students go from Ds or Fs to As on their report cards,” Ferguson said. “It’s important to help students develop early reading skills, because reading is the skill upon which all other learning builds.”

Volunteers report to Bains Lower and are allowed to read with the child anywhere from 7:50 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. so the children can be back in their classrooms in time for regular instruction to begin.

Ferguson said it is ideal for volunteers to read on the same day each week but is not mandatory. Some volunteers can’t read every week, so they may partner with another person to form a Reader Leader team.

If people want to contribute but don’t have time to read, donations also are welcome.

For information about Reader Leader or to sign up, email stephferg34@gmail.com or call Ferguson at (225) 535-0005.