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Altitude virtual volunteer builds reading skills and relationships

Altitude Elementary virtual volunteer Larry Smith Larry Smith reading with student “It’s incredible. He’s so funny and so nice.”

In a year filled with so many societal, educational and emotional challenges, the face of a smiling, 71-year-old man on the other end of a Zoom meeting has been a bright spot for students like Stella Savarese.

She and her third-grade classmates at Altitude Elementary have been able to meet virtually with Larry Smith, a local retiree, who reads with them one-on-one several days a week.

“He’s really nice and when we’re done with a page he talks about what it’s like to be there (in the book),” said student Lane Finch. He added that Smith often shares funny and relevant stories about his own experiences, living and working in different places across the country, including Silicon Valley and on Wall Street during 9-11. Smith also shows the students interesting items that he and his wife have collected.    

“One time he showed me an ostrich egg,” Savarese recalled.

“We laugh a lot,” Larry Smith said. “We get to read some amazing books and somehow, it never stops being joyful and it never stops being good for the kids.”

“He builds relationships with these kids and works really, really hard to inspire them,” said Altitude third-grade teacher Meredith Ramsey. She first met Smith two years ago, after he emailed Altitude Principal Scott Schleich to ask about volunteer opportunities. Schleich suggested Ramsey meet with Smith, since they had something special in common. Smith graduated Summa Cum Laude (with highest honors) from Wayne State College with a degree in technical writing and computing, while Ramsey graduated Summa Cum Laude from Oklahoma Baptist University with a degree in education.

“We just clicked instantly and I knew from the get-go that he would be such a force in my classroom,” Ramsey said.

Smith worked with students in person during the 2019-20 school year, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This year, he began working with students via Zoom. Ramsey said his interaction with students, whether in person or virtually, has helped her students improve literacy skills including fluency, decoding and vocabulary. She says Smith has helped reluctant readers become good readers and good readers reach a sixth-grade reading level.

“The most rewarding part, by far, is when Mrs. Ramsey and I work with a student and they have that ‘Ah hah!’ moment and it all makes sense,” Smith said. “It’s an enormous moment of joy and relief when they realize they can do this.”

Ramsey said third grade is a critical year for students when it comes to literacy.

Student reading “In third grade particularly, kids go from learning to read, to reading to learn, and that is a really big jump for a lot of kids,” she said. “This year I’ve seen the highest amount of reading and literacy growth in these 21 students than I’ve ever seen before, and that’s just a huge testament to what Mr. Smith brings to this classroom.”

Smith, however, said he gains much more than he gives.

“I have a blast. This is the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “As a volunteer, I get to watch grand and wonderful things happening.”

Savarese said working with Smith this year has helped her immensely, and she wants the students who’ll be in Mrs. Ramsey’s class next year to know how lucky they are.

“When I go in fourth grade I’m really going to miss him,” Savarese said. “And to the second-graders who are about to be in third grade, I just want them to know that if you’re in Mrs. Ramsey’s class and you get to read with him, it’s going to be fun!”

Posted 4/13/2021.