School's out at 1:55 p.m. and typically that's when members of the Zephyrhills High football team hit the weight room. But come Tuesdays, 11 players head over to the local elementary school, where they tend to flexing muscles of the mind.
"My heart just melts watching this," said, Jessica Boydston, as she scanned the media center at West Zephyrhills Elementary to see kids like 8-year-old Benny Raines sharing a book with 18-year-old Lawrence Everett.
Just three weeks in and the media and technology teacher was already seeing the impact of a new Readers are Leaders program she is implementing with Zephyrhills High football coach Reggie Roberts.
"I love seeing the boys changing," Boydston. "They're so excited on Tuesdays. They keep asking, 'Is it time for Readers are Leaders?' "
Change of the positive sort is the goal for Readers are Leaders, a nonprofit program that promotes literacy, peer mentoring and community service while raising the environmental tenor in partner schools.
Elementary teachers select students who might benefit from one-on-one reading practice or socialization with an older student, Boydston explained. Younger students meet with the same mentor each week to read a book, then take a follow-up comprehension test. Sessions end with a snack and some friendly banter. The kids also get an incentive such as a pencil or a free book of their choice and on completion of the program will be honored at the traditional "Orange and Black" football game on May 23 at Zephyrhills High.
"They have to work and none of them complain about that," Boydston said, adding that, while the pilot program has been geared to boys and football players, there are plans to include girls and other sports teams.
The blueprint for Readers are Leaders was created in 2003 by Wendell Byrd, a longtime elementary school teacher and high school basketball coach in Fairfax County, Va., who was looking for a way to train athletes on how to be positive role models off the court.
"I always thought it was important and vital to lead by example," Byrd said. "We had a very successful group of young men — a great team that had won all sorts of titles. I wanted to channel that energy in a positive manner. All of those young men became icons in the community and we were telling them they have to stand tall 24/7. The thing is, they don't always know how to do that."
Byrd's idea was to tap into a local elementary school. He recruited 45 basketball players to help 45 at-risk elementary students with reading and socialization skills.
"I taught second grade for 31 years, so the literacy component was easy to tie in," Byrd said. "The younger kids look up to the older kids who are trained to do the right things and know what to do with reading strategies."
It was a quick success, Byrd said. "It took on its own meaning."
The nonprofit that started with two schools and 90 elementary and high school students now serves about 1,800 students in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida with plans to expand to Detroit and Boston. Readers are Leaders provides training and funding to launch the program, though schools are expected to be self-sufficient within two years.
Readers are Leaders fit the bill for West Zephyrhills Elementary, a Title I school that already draws strong support from the local community.
"It's really made a difference," said third-grade teacher, Loretta Seekins, part of the team that brought Readers are Leaders to the school as a way to enhance an up-and-running "Leader in Me" program.
"It's a different kind of leadership when it's coming from peers," Seekins said. "A lot of kids don't connect with adults. They connect with older kids, especially with the sports connection."
A nice offshoot of the program, Seekins added, is that the younger students, who learn from example are now becoming reading mentors to first-grade students.
As for Coach Roberts, he's been more than happy to bring his team on board. Promoting community service and the importance of good grades is part of his locker room pitch.
"I know how important sports were to me growing up, but my mom always insisted that my grades were good," said Roberts, who played football for Zephyrhills High and Bethune-Cookman University and worked for 12 years as a homicide detective in Orlando before returning home to coach.
"They (players) love coming here — they just love it," he said.
In the meantime, Lawrence Everett and other athletes will continue to skip the weights to carve out time for their younger counterparts.
"I like to come help with the kids," Everett said. "I know I needed it when I was a kid."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org