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CASA GRANDE — The city may become the third in the state and the first rural city in the nation to participate in AARP’s national third grade reading program.

The Casa Grande City Council approved a request from Achieve Pinal to host the AARP Foundation Experience Corps Reading Literacy Program at Monday night’s meeting.

“Being able to read by the end of third grade is the crucial milestone in a child’s future success,” said Jerry Stabley, a member of Achieve Pinal who has volunteered for the AARP reading program in Phoenix for the last three years.

Achieve Pinal is a program of Pinal Alliance for Economic Growth.

The city is looking at a major growth in industry and jobs in the next few years and the city has to be able to provide a workforce that has the reading and analytical skills to run, maintain and adjust the machines in those industries.

The AARP program partners adult volunteers over age 50 with elementary school students who are struggling to read. The volunteers are given training to help tutor and mentor the students. The students are chosen by the local school district for the program.

“It also helps children feel good about themselves,” Stabley said. “A lot of these children don’t get the one-on-one attention that our children had when they grew up. I’ve seen it happen time and time again, when someone is paying attention to them they just blossom.”

The program is offered in 22 cities across the nation. Only two cities in Arizona have the program, Tempe and Phoenix, he said. Casa Grande would become the third city in the state to offer the program if the national seniors organization approves funding for the project.

The program is highly successful, said Peggy Goldberg, the AARP Foundation adviser for the program. The program has been running for 14 years in Tempe and six years in Phoenix.

Over a four-year period, Tempe saw a 99% improvement in reading fluency and accuracy among students in the program. About 63% of the students in the Tempe program got to grade level benchmark fluency and 75% got to grade level benchmark in reading accuracy. To reach that benchmark level is “really, really difficult,” Goldberg said.

“Those are pretty outstanding statistics and ones we know we can duplicate in Casa Grande,” she said.

The program also helps its volunteers, she said.

“They become advocates for education. They become more civically engaged. That’s a win, win, win all the way around,” Goldberg said.

Volunteers have told AARP that they feel they have a greater sense of purpose and they felt like they were giving back to their community. Many also said it’s helped improve their mental and physical health.

Casa Grande would also be a pilot program for AARP, Stabley said. Most of AARP’s Experience Corps Reading programs are located in major metropolitan areas. The smallest city in the program has a population of 175,000 people. Casa Grande would be the first time the organization has funded the program in a rural city.

The plan is to build the rural pilot program in Casa Grande over the next two years and once the program is stable, offer it to other Pinal County cities.

The Casa Grande program would start out with about 128 students and 32 tutors and cost about $49,000 in the first year. AARP will provide some funding for the program. Achieve Pinal will help with fundraising and grant applications to help cover some of the other costs.

The city would offer office space, oversight of the two employees needed to run the program and financial support.

AARP would provide training on how to operate the program, as well as materials, books, equipment and manuals. It also has the opportunity to provide some funding and technical assistance.

The Casa Grande Elementary School District would provide tutor training, students, student test data and some funding.

Achieve Pinal would offer fundraising, manage the nonprofit status of the program and provide advertising for the program.

Mayor Pro Tem Donna McBride asked if the city’s many winter visitors would be able to join in the program, since many of them arrive early in the school year.

Stabley said while the program would start with the beginning of the 2020 school year, the first couple months are often spent looking at student test scores, talking to teachers and training volunteers. It would be easy to accommodate winter volunteers who arrive in September or October.

Councilman Dick Powell asked about special needs students and if there is a fifth grade math program available.

Stabley said special needs students often have other programs that meet their needs better. The AARP program is designed for students who don’t have special needs but are struggling with reading.

Casa Grande Elementary School District Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales said AARP does not provide a math program but the district has a number of internal programs that it uses to help students who are struggling. The AARP program “will provide extra umph for those kids to achieve,” she said.

Mayor Craig McFarland said he is a huge supporter of the program.

“It’s going to be a long slog through the mud to make these changes, but I hope to see the fruits of this labor soon,” he said.