<p>An America Reads volunteer flips through a book with a group of elementary school children at Maryland Reads Day in Cole Field House. </p>

An America Reads volunteer flips through a book with a group of elementary school children at Maryland Reads Day in Cole Field House. 

Students at this university cheered outside Cole Field House on Friday as about 290 first- and second-graders exited school buses and arrived for Maryland Reads Day.

The elementary school kids are part of the America Reads program, which allows students at this university and others to visit elementary schools in nearby communities such as Prince George’s County to mentor students in reading, said Ali Barlow, the program coordinator for both America Reads and America Counts — a partner organization focused on math — at this university.

The program partners with 12 schools in the county, and 11 attended Maryland Reads Day. Several of the participating elementary school students do not speak English as their first language, said Jillian DiNardo, a senior English major and America Reads team leader.

“This is like the celebration at the end, where it’s like, ‘You guys did a great job, look at all the progress you’ve made,’” DiNardo said.

In 1997, this university became one of the country’s first 20 universities to host the America Reads program, which has since become a nationwide initiative with more than 1,400 participating universities, according to the program’s website.

Former university President Brit Kirwan served on the White House’s America Reads College Presidents Steering Committee and started the program here, which recruited more than 60 student mentors in its first semester.

This semester, 82 students at this university are America Reads mentors, Barlow said.

“We have mentors come in from the university who are tutoring our low-performing students to give them an extra boost to improve their reading skills, comprehension skills and just to give our students a new friend to read with,” said Marjorie Martin, America Reads program director at Thomas S. Stone Elementary School in Mount Rainier.

Maryland Reads Day events consisted of reading-inspired crafts, a sing-along puppet show and reading of Caps for Sale, a children’s book that the visiting students received as a gift. Over 230 volunteers helped with the activities.

But DiNardo said the program is not just about reading.

“We call ourselves mentors instead of tutors because it’s also like a role model thing,” DiNardo said. “It’s ‘cause we’re like, ‘This is college; this is exciting; you can go here too,’ … and they’re really excited about it.”

Lorraine Makanama, a student mentor for America Reads, also said the program aims to expose the kids to a university setting.

“We make the kids have the college experience,” the junior psychology major said. “They get to see where we’re coming from.”

Makanama said interacting with the children is why she enjoys the program.

“At first, it was a volunteer opportunity, but as soon as I got into it, the kids … convinced me,” she said. “It was just somewhere to volunteer, and once I got to Reads, it was the kids that put me there. They were the reason I did it, I guess, after finding out about them.”