Over the past year, dozens of Aiken Rotary Club members and their friends often visited East Aiken School of the Arts – reading with fourth- and fifth-grade students who could benefit by meeting with other adults who care about them.

The Rotary members will return next month, and their efforts “contributed to a very successful year,” said Principal Lisa Fallaw. “The children looked forward to their visits, and 86 percent had a positive growth in areas of their reading weaknesses.”

With Aiken Elementary School coming on board next month, about 87 Rotarians and other community residents have signed up for one of the schools. Earlier this week, Principal Becky Koelker cited the obstacles that many children face in trying to improve their reading ability. More than 25 percent of Aiken County’s children live in poverty, and 80 percent of them are not proficient.

The U.S. scores only in the top half in proficiency among industrialized nations, and that’s specifically due to low-income families, Koelker said. Almost none of the children have access to books at home. Their exposure to words on a daily basis is a fraction of other children from middle-class and affluent families.

“Literacy is not just reading,” Koelker said. “It’s speaking, writing and communication. I’ve seen what happens at a (grocery) line for adults who are illiterate and can’t communicate.”

Aiken Elementary School has other volunteers, and Koelker is delighted the Rotary Readers will join them. Their participation can be tailored to their own interests and availability. Placing two readers in a kindergarten class of 5-year-olds will be helpful, Koelker said.

“I want you to come to Aiken Elementary School and learn from our teachers and students,” she said. “Schools should be joyful. I strongly believe that, and we will welcome you.”

Dr. Beth Everitt, the School District superintendent, is a Rotarian herself and has worked on the project with other members. New statewide initiatives are also under way that can improve literacy and reading levels of the youngest children, she said.

The S.C. General Assembly has also approved funding to put a full-day teacher in every elementary school for kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds.

“We’re able to reallocate our district funds and add an extra 4-K classroom to maximize the help these children need,” Everitt said.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.