Why Grade-Level Reading Matters


Being able to read on grade-level by the third grade can change a child’s life. For five years, WakeEd Partnership’s Partners Read program has placed mentors into Wake County Public Schools to read with developing first and second grade students and has provided nearly 20,000 books to fill students’ home libraries. 

In 2014, a small group of Wake County lawyers was evaluating literacy programs across North Carolina, looking for a way to give back to schools in their community. Originally called “Lawyers Read,” Partners Read grew out of a shared concern for students not reading on grade level by the third grade. This crucial learning benchmark was receiving national attention after the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a special report called Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters, to launch the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. This study, and its 2013 update, provided important data that identified grade-level reading proficiency as an “essential step toward increasing the number of children from low-income families who succeed academically, graduate from high school on time and do well in life and the workforce.”

It was this study that inspired three attorneys, John Mabe, Nicolette Fulton, and Tom Worth to act locally. “Lawyers, by nature, are people who want to help others,” John shared. “Lawyers go into the profession to try to help other people and to make the world a better place.”

With the full support of the Wake County Bar Association (WCBA), John recruited WakeEd Partnership to help them develop a new literacy initiative in Wake County. After months of collaboration, WakeEd, WCBA, and the Wake County Public School System identified several key elements that would make Lawyers Read most successful.

“We’re lawyers, not educators,” from the very beginning, volunteers and the school system acknowledged that a tutoring program would not be a good fit. “We’re not teaching kids to read, we’re reading with kids and spending time with them” to help boost their confidence.

Since then, Nicolette Fulton, like many volunteers, has seen first-hand that confidence can make all the difference. “One of my students was the only one in his family who could speak English,” so he was struggling to translate while also learning to read. She recalls clearly the day they met, when she asked him who he could practice reading with at home and he told her: “my teddy bear.”

“This is where we can make the biggest impact on a child’s life. If you help a child learn to read and love to read, you give them confidence to help them succeed inside and outside school.”


Another key priority was to place volunteers in schools that were on their way to work, allowing them to stop in during their commute on Friday mornings. “Just reading a book for thirty minutes becomes the highlight of our week,” John shared, “and thirty minutes on your way to work…who can’t do that?”

Literacy is truly a community effort. Supported by welcoming schools, energized volunteers, and dedicated program administrators, the Lawyers Read program launched in the Fall of 2014 with approximately 20 lawyers in three elementary schools. A year later, WakeEd rebranded the program as “Partners Read,” inviting other organizations to participate. John and his colleagues from WCBA were inspired by the program’s initial impact, and “hoped that it would be a good way to put more business people in classrooms.” Now, students read with more than 250 volunteers from businesses, organizations, and community groups across Wake County.


Some of our newest volunteers are from Wake County Public Schools! When Cheryl Stidham from WCPSS Human Resources heard that there was a need for more volunteers in 2019, she immediately pitched the program to her team. “We’re here to serve schools and Partners Read gives us an opportunity to serve the children in our schools in a different way.”


The Human Resources department has fully embraced this opportunity to give back. “Not only did we go to one school, we filled in gaps throughout the county,” Cheryl shared. “I think that speaks volumes about the commitment that my department has to giving back, not just through the work we do on a day-to-day basis, but by genuinely touching the lives of kids in the process.” “There is nothing greater than seeing that six-year-old smile every Friday morning.” Students light up the media center when they come running in from the bus to read with their mentors. Their improvement through the year is exciting, but it is the personal relationships that mean the most to students and volunteers.

“The books become a part of their life but the memory of how that book was shared also becomes a part of them.”

Cheryl was Principal of Stough Magnet Elementary School when they adopted Partners Read in 2015. She describes Partners Read as a privilege and remembers fondly how excited her students would be when they came in on Friday mornings. “As a former teacher and school leader, kids are my passion, and I know if we can close the gap for them, especially at an early age, they could potentially become lifelong readers.” Cheryl and her colleagues hope that by giving a little time each week, they can inspire a lifelong love of reading.

Like many other volunteers, it was a love of books and reading that led former Broughton High School teacher Jennifer Cates to join Partners Read. “Every success in my life I think goes back to the fact that my parents read to me as a child, and one of the little promises that I made myself when I stopped teaching, was that I wouldn’t stop reading in the classroom.” For Jennifer, sitting in a library, surrounded by books, getting to know a child, and giving them the encouragement they need to believe in themselves, has been a dream. “It’s just so very easy and rewarding. I’m spending one-on-one time with a child, reading a book – it doesn’t get much simpler than that.”

Cheryl agrees and cherishes the memories that she has already made with her Partners Read students, “nothing can replace the feeling that comes from spending quality time with a child – it’s an irreplaceable opportunity that we don’t get enough of.”

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