POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Most Florida students are reading below grade level, according to results from the state’s new testing system.

The state’s new “Florida Assessment of Student Thinking” involves “progress monitoring” rather than one standardized test.

In Polk County, only fourth graders surpassed 50% at or above grade level for reading, on only the final of three testing sessions.

Educators say the key to educational success in later years is early intervention.

“If they can be confident in their ability to become readers, then they’re just already set up for success in their future education,” said Alana Ribble, a kindergarten teacher at Jesse Keen Elementary.

This school year, Ribble and kindergarten teachers at 15 Polk County Public Schools will identify students for the United Way of Central Florida’s ReadingPals program.

Some are chosen because they need a lot of help with their reading.

Others are right on the cusp of grasping it.

“They’re close to being on grade level or they’re close to picking it up and we’ll choose some of those kids because they just need a little bit of extra support,” said Ribble.

The program, which began in 2012, partners partners kindergarteners with a volunteer, or a “ReadingPal.”

“You show up once a week for one hour and you’re paired with four little kindergarteners,” said Gretch Ceranic, director of Success by 6, which oversees the ReadingPals program.

The four students are split into two groups with 20-30 minute sessions.

According to program leaders, statistics show up to 59% of kindergarteners are not prepared for school in Polk County.

“Because of COVID, we are seeing kids that are struggling more in school with reading,” said Ceranic. “Since COVID, we had to pause the program so we are slowly building back up our numbers and that is why we have such a great need.”

This year, 256 volunteers are needed. There are currently 90 volunteers signed up. School begins in two weeks.

“It really helps build a love of reading and so kids aren’t afraid to hold a book. That’s the important thing in kindergarten to get them ready for that third grade test that they’re gonna have to take is to get them to love reading as a youngster and not be afraid of a book and that’s what ReadingPals does,” said Jennifer Dettling, principal at Jesse Keen Elementary School.

Volunteers do not need to have experience in education to get involved.

The ReadingPals volunteer application is available here.