‘Cocky’s Reading Express’ making a difference in South Carolina
Rows of first-graders sat cross-legged in their elementary school’s library, chattering to kids in other classes in fits of nervous excitement.
They pulled on the laces in their sneakers and were reminded, time and time again, to keep their bottoms on the ground.
Their teachers — who clutched digital cameras and beamed with the same giddy smiles as the 105 first-grade students — had told them Cocky was coming. Some asked about the Carolina-clad “duck,” others about the chicken in the minutes before their special midmorning assembly.
Cocky’s Reading Express is a little bit of magic for underserved classrooms in South Carolina. Student volunteers from the University of South Carolina have read and delivered new books to preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students in every county of the state since 2005.
The project, an effort of the university’s student government and the School of Library and Information Science, has delivered 57,859 books to schools in every county in the state to promote reading skills and academic success.
Since 2010, the program has grown from a few visits to low-income schools to almost weekly visits and after-school family literacy events.
“Really, what we are trying to do is change students’ attitude toward reading, because as we know from the research, if a child isn’t reading on grade level by third grade, they’re going to be behind,” said Kim Jeffcoat, the executive director of the South Carolina Center for Children’s Books and Literacy, the home of the Reading Express.
And, it’s working — a statewide trend toward reading, that is.
Although there hasn’t been much progress in early reading proficiency nationwide, South Carolina has shown improvement. In 1992, 47 percent of S.C. fourth-graders read below the basic level, but in 2009, only 38 percent didn’t meet the standard, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Jeffcoat said the literacy problem stretches far beyond just reading. A solid foundation in reading leads to an understanding of the financial world and health care system, she said.
Cocky’s Reading Express works to get South Carolina’s elementary-aged children on level so they have a shot at comprehensive, adulthood literacy.
“We focus on a shift in values. Do you value having books in your home? Do you value reading with your children? Do you value public libraries?” Jeffcoat said.
It is starting to click for many people, many families in South Carolina that “literacy in that larger sense means we have a more skilled workforce. It means we can get people out of the cycle of poverty,” Jeffcoat said.
“People are starting to realize that literacy is a key component to a shift in values,” she continued.
The shift is working its way through the stops on Cocky’s Reading Express. At simply the sight of a small group of college students, children’s eyes twinkle. They know the volunteers are from the University of South Carolina, and their teachers already have started encouraging them toward a future in college.
Before the special assembly, and the countdown to a special guest reader outfitted in a Gamecocks Baseball jersey and bright yellow beak, there’s a classroom survey. It’s a 45-minute gauge of the Cocky’s Reading Express mission.
There are just a few simple questions: Do you like to read? Do you have a special place for your books? Would you like to get a book as a gift? Most of the kids who picked the “wrong” answer at W.B. Goodwin — they didn’t like to read or would prefer a video game, or perhaps a puppy — were just confused first-graders.
From there, it’s story time. The student volunteers stand in front of the wide-eyed rows, serving as a semi-celebrity to the kids, and read “Interrupting Chicken” or “Pete the Cat.” The kids – very much struggling with the crossed legs at this point – belt out every line of the latter: “I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes” with the swagger only one who knows the book can understand.
Riley Cain, a third-year sport and entertainment student at USC, has read those lines several times. She started volunteering with Cocky’s Reading Express this spring, and although she’s made it to the end goal for these kids, college, she started in the same classroom chairs.
Cain grew up in Title I schools, which are schools that serve largely low-income populations, in Lexington County. She graduated from Swansea High School. A lot of her friends’ parents worked blue-collar jobs and didn’t have any kind of college dream.
“Only a handful of us went to a four-year school,” Cain said.
She was lucky — her mom went to college, so it was always a part of her plan. But for kids who are in line to be first-generation college graduates, there’s a need for that kind of end goal. That’s what Cocky’s Reading Express is about, Cain said.
“It’s about giving them examples,” Cain said. “A lot of them don’t have that.”
After Cocky danced to the words of the last two books, and most children — two or three burst into tears — bopped their heads along with his claw-footed wobbles from stage left to stage right, the kids had to make one promise.
It’s the promise that every child makes before they get their brand new book from the Reading Express: I will read to Cocky every day.
A couple weeks after each Reading Express leaves, Jeffcoat and her team follow up with the schools to scale the success. Are the kids still reading to Cocky each day? The answer is most often an overwhelming yes.
The kids just can’t deny Cocky.
On the way out of the assembly, Cain and other volunteers hand each child a sticker and their book. They circle out of the door and into the hallway where they get one high-five, hug, sometimes a fist bump with what some still see as the mighty duck.
One student at W.B. Goodwin, however, had a different request — a hug or handshake just wasn’t good enough.
“Cocky, can I touch your beak just once?”
Cocky bowed down to one knee as a gaggle of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds gathered and placed one hand on the bright yellow beak.
Chloe Gould is a student at the USC School of Journalism.