WATERLOO — A Waterloo-based charity that helps children learn to read has received a $1-million grant to expand its program to reach younger children whose learning was disrupted by the switch to remote classrooms during the pandemic.
Strong Start was among 15 charitable organizations in Canada and the United States awarded a total of $10 million by the 2021 TD Ready Challenge focused on expanding programs to address the significant learning loss in reading in math that’s predicted to follow COVID-19 restrictions that closed schools for long stretches.
“We are really excited and thrilled to be receiving this grant, and especially now the timing is perfect,” said Machelle Denison, executive director.
The grant will go toward offering more students Strong Start’s program called Letters, Sounds and Words pairs volunteer coaches with young children to develop early reading skills.
“We train community volunteers to go into schools and work one on one with children,” Denison said.
The three-year grant will allow the charity to help an extra 9,000 children. Now they’re supporting 4,000 children annually, but the reach will grow to 20,000 over the three years by adding 100 schools a year.
Due to the pandemic, the need is greater than ever.
“There are more children that are struggling with their reading,” Denison said. “The impact has been profound … especially for young children at that key point of development.”
The program is primarily for senior kindergarten to Grade 1, but more Grade 3 students are needing help. They’ve spent little time in the classrooms since the pandemic’s start at a critical time when they’re developing foundational learning and social skills.
“Because of COVID, older children are going to need the support as well,” Denison said.
Each student meets with their volunteer for 30-minute sessions twice a week for 10 weeks, and they’re assessed at the beginning and end of the program.
“It has a measurable impact. We know it works.”