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    A helping hand with reading

    More than 300 Verizon employees went to 17 Pinellas elementary schools as part of a literacy outreach project and team-building exercise.

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- John Cosgrove, a marketing manager at Verizon telecommunications company, and Brandon Berry, 9, took turns reading passages of a fable on the Internet.

    Shellie Winter's third grade class at Ponce de Leon Elementary School followed along as Cosgrove lifted Brandon so he could get a better view of the computer screen.

    The class giggled at Cosgrove's thick New York accent and at plot twists in The Fisherman and His Wife, a tale about a fisherman, his demanding wife and a magical flounder.

    Then the tables were turned. Cosgrove and Brandon stopped reading just before the end of the fable, and it was the class' job to finish the story.

    To brainstorm for original finales, pupils split into four different groups along with Cosgrove and 15 other guests, Verizon employees from across the country.

    A similar scenario played out in 17 Pinellas schools Thursday. More than 300 Verizon consumer marketing employees, attending a three-day national marketing convention in Palm Harbor, crammed into vans and rode off to 17 different third-grade classrooms.

    In addition to donating time to these schools, the Consumer Markets group and Verizon Foundation donated $42,000 for literacy tools. Each of the schools received an iMac computer, literacy software and more than 40 books.

    "I think it's a tremendous opportunity for the school. It's wonderful seeing the business sector getting involved in literacy," said Principal Susan Daniels.

    Winter said the non-threatening workshop was sure to motivate her students.

    "It will get their creative juices flowing," she said. "It encourages them to write and take risks."

    Nine-year-old Bonnie McElravy said she was thrilled that the workers took the time to stop by.

    "Everybody came here from everywhere. And they gave us a lot of money," she said.

    In 1999, the company launched Verizon Reads, then known as GTE Reads, a national campaign to promote literacy. Verizon spokesman Bob Elek said the company sees this project as a way to blend business goals with philanthropic goals. Although Verizon takes part in other literacy outreach programs, this is the first time a literacy project was used as a "team-building exercise," he said.

    The project budded in February, when Verizon's local public affairs program manager Don Holbrook phoned the Pinellas school's instructional technology supervisor, Judy Ambler. He offered a donation of literacy materials and asked if the district would be interested in doing a literacy project with Verizon.

    She said yes and got the ball rolling, choosing literacy supplies and recipient schools.

    Ambler selected third-grade classrooms because it's a crucial grade to prepare students for the Florida Comprehensive Assesment Test, she said. Then, she chose schools that needed monetary assistance, making sure they had free and reduced lunch programs. And because the team-building activity was slated for 1:30 p.m., she made a practical decision. Schools had to be close to the convention center to give employees time to interact with the kids before the school day was over.

    Ambler chose Scholastic Reading Inventory and Reading Counts software, which is used at varying levels throughout the county.

    The SRI software calculates lexiles, which are measurements that match students to texts on their reading levels.

    Lexiles help boost comprehension and prevent frustration, said Harry N. Barfoot III Reading Counts vice president and general manager.

    And Reading Counts software motivates pupils and generates reports which help teachers keep track of students' progress, he said.

    The third-graders weren't the only ones who got a lesson Thursday.

    Pupils demonstrated reading software for Verizon employees. And employees received training packets for the literacy project with illustrations and directions written in Greek letters, to emphasize what it would be like to face the inability to read.

    "We got the experience of struggling to read," said Frank Kinder, vice president of consumer marketing. "It was a challenge. You could imagine struggling like that every step of the way."

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