Julianna Rodriguez and Coltan Hardin sit cross-legged on the floor of their first-grade classroom at Salk Elementary School in Mesa, listening to the story of "Buzz Bumble Bee to the Rescue."
Although she prefers stories about princesses, Julianna said she enjoys the story of Buzz because she "likes bees and stories about saving people."
Her tutor, Erin Norris, is a senior at Red Mountain High School and member of the RIF Club, which visits the classrooms at Salk a couple of times a week to cultivate the kind of enthusiasm about reading that Julianna shows.
Sometimes Norris reads to the students, sometimes they read to her. She said it's a relationship that is rewarding for all involved. "It's just a lot of fun," she said. "It's always a positive atmosphere when you're working with kids."
Red Mountain and Salk are working together to improve literacy through the Reading Is Fundamental program, and this year the schools have received the third annual Program Excellence Honors 2008 award from the national program.
Reading is Fundamental is best known for providing free books to at-risk children, but it also works to improve reading and comprehension skills among young people.
The Mesa program is one of 25 programs expected to be recognized during a celebration June 16-18 in Washington, D.C., for successfully partnering with outside organizations to advance children's literacy in their communities, according to a spokeswoman for the national program. The programs being honored were selected from about 3,500 RIF programs nationwide.
The best ideas from each program will be collected and added to a Web-based portfolio on the Reading Is Fundamental Web site, www.rif.org.
Karla Carlson, principal at Salk, said the reading program has become a tradition and a true partnership between high school and elementary students.
"My kids love the attention of the older kids," Carlson said. "They love the fact that they compliment them. It builds their self-esteem, and they feel good about reading because these high school students are their role models, and if they value reading, then it must be a good thing."
Red Mountain teacher Patricia Heck, who oversees the school's RIF Club, said the reading program began in 1988 and since that time the club has given away more than $3 million worth of books. Each year, the school's club distributes 2,500 books to schools and the surrounding community.
Sixty students in grades 10 through 12 at Red Mountain are RIF tutors, working twice a week in small groups or one-on-one with younger students to improve their reading skills. But about 1,800 students at the school are in some way involved in the program, which organizes a variety of outreach activities each year, including learning workshops, reading displays and book parties.
"I think it's unique, in a high school, to have so many students who want to support something like this," Heck said.
Red Mountain's program has been recognized nationally before. It was the recipient of President Clinton's Student Service Award, and was President George H.W. Bush's 432nd Point of Light in 1991.