By: Carolyn Steeves / Enquirer-Journal

Union County Public Schools Superintendent Andrew Houlihan announces a new initiative, “Read with U,” at the Union County Public Library on Wednesday. The program asks members of the community to read to a first-grade student for 30 minutes a week every week.

Union County Public Schools, the Union County Public Library and other community groups announced a partnership this week to improve literacy rates in the county and give community members a chance to impact children.

Superintendent Andrew Houlihan, who celebrates his first year with the district this week, said the announcement was “the best anniversary present I could ever receive.”

The plan is called “Read with U” and is a call-to-action for the community to volunteer to commit to reading to one first-grade student for 30 minutes a week, every week. The plan is to expose children to literacy, help with reading skills and show them that there are adults outside their families and school who care about them.

If someone is interested in volunteering, but cannot be at a school in Union County, they are able to tutor remotely, thanks to a program called TutorMate. TutorMate will be used in Title I schools, then rolled out throughout the county, Houlihan said.

Houlihan has already received support from the United Way, Heart for Monroe, the Union County Chamber of Commerce, Novant Health and other organizations, he said.

School board chair Melissa Merrell called the program the “most important puzzle piece” when discussing childhood literacy and praised the partnership between the school system and the library.

The test results for the district will not be released by the state until the first week in September, but Houlihan said last year about 66 to 70 percent of students were at-or-above grade level, which marked a decrease from previous years. He said one of his big goals in his first year was to address the issue.

He found that the district did not have a strong strategic framework to address literacy by third grade. He added that it is not a third-grade-only problem, but rather starts in first and second grades.

Houlihan said he is looking forward to a great school year as Monday, the first day of traditional-calendar schools in the county, approaches.

Ginger Walle, executive director of Heart for Monroe, said education plays a big part in the organization’s mission to address homelessness, hunger and other community issues.

“This is an exciting announcement,” she said.

Through its coalition of churches and organizations, Heart for Monroe can tap into more than 80 different mentors and learning buddies, Walle said.

The organization works mainly with the Monroe cluster, and Walle said many of the mentors in the organization continue to help the children as they age. She said it is a chance to help students who do not read as much at home.

Read with U will provide the opportunity to help children work on literacy, boost their confidence and build relationships, she said.

Walle said she has seen how literacy can change a child’s life, including the trajectory of that life.

“(It) helps the community to be stronger overall,” she said.

More information about the program is available online, there is a link to the site on the UCPS homepage: ucps.k12.nc.us.