Where help is right next door

By AMBER MOBLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 9, 2007

ODESSA - Walker Middle School eighth-grader Christina Fernandez starts her Thursdays next door at Hammond Elementary.

Up and at 'em nearly an hour before her school's in session, she and 15 other students on Walker's student advisory committee volunteer to mentor Hammond fourth-graders.

Here is where the Wolves and Wolf Cubs prowl through books side by side.

"I get excited when it comes to Thursdays," Christina said.

It's a pairing made possible because they share a campus.

Mentorships where older students help out youngsters at a neighboring school are becoming commonplace at shared campuses all around Hillsborough County.

For Hammond principal Karen Zielinksi, partnering with Walker was a no-brainer.

During the summer - before the paint was dry and the last nail hammered at Hammond - Zielinksi asked guidance counselor Heather Soltis to collaborate with Susan Roberts, the sixth- grade guidance counselor at Walker, and the Wolves and Wolf Cubs mentoring program was born.

The private, nonprofit agency SERVE trained the Walker student-volunteers.

Hammond teachers hand-picked students needing extra reading help to participate.

And the students say they're benefiting.

In a way, volunteering at Hammond is like getting a slew of little brothers and sisters for seventh-grader Natalie Barman, who also occasionally reads to her little sister at home.

"I think the experience is good for both of us," said Natalie.

"Kids," said Soltis, "always react better when it's another student who's telling them what to do instead of an adult."

"We had more students who wanted to do it," added Roberts, "but this is a good way to start."

Roberts and Soltis may put the program on hiatus during the second semester to allow students to focus on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, FCAT, that Grades 3 through 11 take in the spring.

The teachers hope the work they have done already will help students improve their scores. "Children must be able to read to be successful in all their courses," said Roberts.

Hammond fourth-grader Terrence Nelson is slowly starting to agree.

"Reading is just not my kind of subject," he said. "Math is my subject." But lately, he has noticed, "I'm reading faster."

Amber Mobley can be reached at amobley@sptimes.com or 813 269-5311.