Young Readers Make an ‘All-Star Leap’ Thanks to United Way Suncoast Program

Six-year-old Dariel Gonzalez-Maqueda stares into the laptop camera with brown eyes, wide and eager, and leans his head on the shoulder of his mother, Cristina Maqueda.

As he listens, Cristina praises United Way Suncoast’s Reading All-Star program to a listener on the other end of the camera. The strategic initiative supports elementary-age students’ early-literacy success by connecting volunteers — either in person or virtually — with students who need added support. During weekly sessions, the volunteers lead students through read-alouds, educational activities and enrichments.

Cristina shares how Reading All-Stars has helped Dariel improve his reading skills, and  a new reality emerges. He’s not looking into a camera on the device, he’s peering into a portal that takes him from his Clearwater bedroom to a world of wonderment. With the help of Reading All-Star education coordinator Donna Curtis, Dariel transports into a land of superheroes, fairy tales and sports superstars every week. And he learns.

It’s an amazing journey given that Dariel could only make letter sounds when he joined Reading All-Stars midway through his Kindergarten year.

“I’m blown away. I’m amazed,” Donna said. “One day I was reading to him and he just started reading along.”

As Donna explains Dariel’s success on a Zoom call, Cristina turns to Dariel and smiles. Dariel looks back with a knowing nod. It’s a snapshot of pride and joy, and Reading All-Stars replicates that snapshot across Hillsborough and Pinellas County.

After spending just six months in the program, Dariel had amped up his reading abilities to a second-grade level by the end of the school year. His sister, 9-year-old Natasha, elevated her reading from first to third grade by the end of the school year.

In June and July, they not only avoided the summer slide, a term educators use to describe a learning regression that occurs during the two months students are out of school, they rose another level. Natasha, who meets weekly with volunteer Catherine Stout, will enter fourth grade reading on a fourth-grade level.

“The program is very good,” Cristina said. “It’s really helped them and it’s helped them in school.”

Lisa Rodetsky echoes Cristina’s sentiments. She’s witnessed remarkable transformations in both her sons, Jacob and Michael. Michael, a third-grader in the 2020-21 school year, rose three reading levels and is now reading above level. Jacob, a fourth grader last year, rose two reading levels and now also reads above level.

Judy Szink, a Reading All-Star volunteer, works with Jacob and Michael every week. Lisa credits Judy for the remarkable progress of her sons.

“She’s really great,” Lisa said. “I really, really like her. She’s so patient. She takes her time with them. She asks about their week or what they’re going to be doing. They really like that.”

Overall, Reading All-Star students produced a 14-month gain during the 2020-21 school year, a period where a lot of students fell behind because of pandemic-related challenges and distance learning.

For Lisa, Reading All-Stars represents more than successful data points. It represents a much-needed support system for her and for other parents looking to guide their children on the path of education.

“This was something I couldn’t do on my own,” Lisa said. “To have someone else’s help is amazing. I’m just so happy I’ve found this.”

To learn more about the program or to serve as a volunteer, visit Reading All-Stars.

Sign up to receive news and updates from United Way Suncoast