Two days before he was scheduled to graduate from Jefferson High School, senior Curt Waltmann donned his cap, gown and at least a half dozen medals for a rapt Coolidge Elementary School audience who listened as he talked about Advanced Placement classes and explained grade-point averages.
“It was a lot of fun working with all the kids,” he said. “The fifth-graders, you can joke around with them and they’re older and they understand things. ... We’d get off task sometimes, talking. That’s the fun part.”
It was Waltmann’s final visit to fifth-grade teacher Jane Broghammer’s classroom as a Read-Along Mentor.
“He’s a good role model for all the students,” Broghammer said. “He’s been through the same experiences they’re about to go through. It makes it more relevant.”
He, alongside J-Hawk men’s basketball teammates Lucas Larson and Jake Van Oort, has worked with weekly with a class of elementary school students for the program. This will be the final year that Coach Stuart Ordman, who launched the initiative in the late ‘90s, will oversee the Read-Along Mentors.
“I’d really like to see the program continue even though I will no longer be the boys basketball coach,” Ordman said before going into what made this year stand out. “The students who are mentors (this year), the supervising teachers and the principals, it’s a wonderful confluence of personalities. They find ways to make things work.”
Since the start of the basketball season, the three high-schoolers made weekly visits to their classrooms (Larson and Van Oort went to Taylor Elementary School) and spent time working with grade-school students. Ordman listed four goals for the program, including combating the “dumb jock” stereotype, passing on a love of reading, bridging the high school and elementary worlds and showing the younger students that older learners care about them.
As it turned out, the younger students in turn grew to care about the basketball players.
“He helped me with a lot of words I didn’t understand and couldn’t spell out,” said Hunter Asbe, one of Broghammer’s students, about Waltmann. “He knows a lot of stuff and he’s a very nice person. ... Curt is a very nice reader.”
Broghammer said that Waltmann’s “quiet way” helped students gain confidence and literacy skills.
During the last day of class, a sea of barely waist-high students, crooning a chorus of “I’ll miss you” and “goodbye” engulfed Van Oort, who said the same and promised each of them that they could come over to his house over the summer to play basketball. That only led to them all voicing a desire to be on his team.
Van Oort just completed his second year as a Taylor Read-Along Mentor, though it was his first in Sarah Lucas-Carr’s third grade classroom. The program calls for weekly visits, but Van Oort eventually began scheduling two approximately 45-minute sessions each week with Lucas-Carr’s students.
“This year I worked with small groups,” Van Oort said. “Some students weren’t as advanced academically. I gravitated toward them and made that connection.”
He would read with the students, volunteering to sit his 6’5” frame into the same chairs the students use and even sprawling out on the floor with them, the teacher said.
Van Oort read aloud, helped students with projects and ran stations for activities while Lucas-Carr worked with small groups. The third-graders also selected passages from books and read them to Van Oort, who would then ask questions to help with their comprehension. “He really helped facilitate that learning and that growth,” Lucas-Carr said. “He’s a big brother figure.”
He even came by for the class’ wax museum, the culmination of the Hero Projects Van Oort had assisted the students on.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was just fantastic.”
He also accompanied the third-graders when the entire school went to a Cedar Rapids Kernels game.
“He really became involved. I call it a ‘class family’ and he really became part of that family network,” Lucas-Carr said of Van Oort. “My kids love him.”
The students asked for Van Oort’s autograph and phone number as the last day of school wound down, requests to which he enthusiastically complied.
“I love the kids,” he said. “I know I have an impact on them but they have an impact on me.”