Bekah S. McNeel

Diamond, a second grader at Herff Elementary School, has no idea she’s reading to one of the most recognizable leaders in her city. She doesn’t know that this tall, thin friend has spoken on nearly every stage in town.

All Diamond knows is that Mr. Darryl Byrd spends time reading with her every week. And for the next 30 minutes, she has him all to herself.

 SA2020 President and CEO Darryl Byrd is one of many adults who volunteer as Reading Buddies with San Antonio Youth Literacy (SAYL). He does it because he knows that this one small thing is contributing to the future opportunities of the students in real and direct ways. And he seems to really enjoy it.

Darryl Byrd helps Herff Elementary student, Diamond, sound out a new word ("pancakes"). Photo by Iris Dimmick.
SA2020 President and CEO Darryl Byrd helps Herff Elementary student, Diamond, sound out a new word (“pancake”) in the cafeteria during a private, SAYL tutoring session. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“It’s the highlight of the week,” Byrd said.

Reading Buddies commit to spending 30 minutes per week with two students for the entire school year. It’s a substantial commitment, and would be intimidating without proper training. How do you begin? What do you do when they are stuck on a word? What if they don’t want to read at all that day?

Fortunately, SAYL staff provides the training that volunteers need in order to feel confident working with their buddies.

SAYL Executive Director Christina Martinez-Rodriguez explained that the two-hour volunteer training covers not only reading strategies, but also social expectations. In fact, volunteers are educated for a full hour on the quirks of 2nd graders, the challenges of poverty, and the effects of feeling “behind.” All of these factors will come into play when the Buddies sit down together to read.

Anita Guiterrez and SAYL reading buddy Emiliano. Photo courtesy of SAYL.
Anita Gutierrez and SAYL Reading Buddy Emiliano. Photo courtesy of SAYL.

For many children, having an adult give them undivided attention for 30 minutes straight is a new experience. They love it, but they also might not know what to do with it at first. It’s up to the grown-up Buddy to create a safe place for the young reader to face the challenges of sounding-out words, looking for context clues, and recalling sight words.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley is also a Reading Buddy. It’s hard to imagine a more packed schedule, and yet Sculley sees the value in the time she spends with her Buddy.

“Personally, I am very proud to be a part of an organization (San Antonio Youth Literacy) whose goal is to ensure that literacy development is offered to elementary students that need that extra push to get them at or above reading level,” Sculley said. “These are our city’s future leaders, business owners, and members of our community, and it’s important that we make an effort to invest into their success.”

On the morning of my visit, Byrd and Diamond are making their way through “Just Like Me,” which happens to be Diamond’s favorite book. Byrd made the choice strategically. He picked a book that was on his Buddy’s reading level, one that he knew she would enjoy. He also knew that she was ready for a challenge, and so he selected a second, more difficult book as well.

Diamond and Darryl Byrd work through words and pictures during their SAYL reading buddy session. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Diamond and Darryl Byrd work through words and pictures during their SAYL Reading Buddy session. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Before they start, the Buddies look through the pictures. They make predictions about what they will read. At one point Diamond stops, looking down at an illustration. They reach one picture of a dog and a cat.

“That doesn’t look like a cat,” she says doubtfully.

Byrd examines the illustration more closely. “No, no it doesn’t,” he says.

“It looks like a…big…hamster,” Diamond says.

Both Buddies crack up and show me the illustrator’s (truly pathetic) illustration of a cat. The giggling continues for a moment or two longer.

This comfortable dynamic continues as they begin to read the text. When Diamond comes to a word she doesn’t know, Byrd reaches for a white board.

“Let’s work that word out a little bit,” he says.

They work through the word using phonics and digraphs. Of course, Byrd doesn’t call them digraphs. He simply refers to the “o” in “float” as a “bossy o.” When Diamond successfully sounds out the word, they high-five. Throughout the reading process, Diamond looks to her grown-up Buddy for affirmation, and Byrd is generous with it.

Diamond smiles at the completion of yet another book with her reading buddy Darryl Byrd. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Diamond smiles at the completion of yet another book with her Reading Buddy Darryl Byrd. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

They also work on grammar. Byrd helps Diamond utilize question marks and exclamation marks to convey meaning in the story.

As they move into the more challenging book, Diamond begins to fatigue a bit. Byrd gives her breaks by asking her about her life. He also ramps up the fun when she gets stumped.

“This is a good word we can play with,” he says.

And so they sound out “pancake.”

Darryl Byrd and Diamond pick out and return books from the SAYL Reading Buddy trunk. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Darryl Byrd and Diamond pick out and return books from the SAYL Reading Buddy trunk. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

At the end of their time, Byrd makes some notes in Diamond’s folder, and returns it to the SAYL trunk, where the books and folders for Herff ES are kept organized and accessible. These folders are the qualitative data marking a students progress. For quantitative measurement, SAYL keeps track of their progress with the Slosson Oral Reading Test (SORT).

They administer the test three times over the course of the year to ensure that students are in fact benefiting from the program. On average they see a reading level improvement of 1 year and 2 months. For example, if a student came in reading at a 1.3 (first grade, 3rd month), they would likely be at a 2.5 by the end of the year.

To be eligible for a Reading Buddy, second-graders must be reading between K.7 and 1.9. Any lower is outside the scope of training for the volunteer Reading Buddies.

SAYL was founded in 1984 on a few campus in SAISD. In 2011, the SAISD Foundation provided the funds they needed to take the program to scale in the entire district. If an elementary school principal can provide one hour per week for Reading Buddies to visit campus, SAYL provides the trunk of books, coordinates the Buddies, and tracks progress.

It’s a lot of work for the four full-time employees of SAYL, but it’s worth it. They are now 58 elementary school campuses in SAISD, as well as seven in NEISD, six in Northside ISD, three in Edgewood ISD, and one in Judson ISD. They are also in four community centers in the SAISD area.

Reading Buddies Leonard Cockerill (right) and Maggie explore a new book. Photo courtesy of SAYL.
Reading Buddies Leonard Cockerill (right) and Maggie explore a new book. Photo courtesy of SAYL.

Beginning today, SAYL kicks off a fundraising effort to match the scale of their ambition for the young readers of San Antonio. They will be convening a Sustaining Campaign, intended to raise operating costs for the organization.

For the next three years, SAYL is looking for major donor partners to commit to a total of $200,000 per year. Those who cannot earmark big dollar donations, the literacy organization looks to find creative ways to partner with local restaurants, coffee shops, and anyone looking for a way to show their support to young readers in our city.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.