Six-year-old Bella couldn’t make the letter “B” face the correct direction. Using bendable craft sticks, she tried several times to shape that elusive “B” on her desk, but every time it came out facing to the left. It was then that Bella’s reading partner, Shannon Hart, 26, said, “Right, bite.”

Bella smiled and instantly remembered their shared “trick” that the letter “B,” as in “bite,” always faces to the right. And that’s just one of many ways that Hart has helped improve Bella’s literacy skills since they began working together a month ago at John Muir Elementary School through education nonprofit Reading Partners.

“Reading Partners is a literacy intervention program,” said Laura Zachar, executive director for Reading Partners in the Los Angeles area. “We’ve been helping students who are behind in reading get up to level since 2008. And this is our third year in Santa Monica.”

Reading Partners currently serves one Santa Monica-based school, John Muir Elementary, where it tutors about 75 students. And the need for reading assistance at John Muir is evidenced by the results of recent state tests.

Just 44 percent of John Muir students passed the English portion of this year’s California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. That figure was 89 percent at Franklin Elementary and 81 percent at Roosevelt.

“We’ve had a great relationship with John Muir teachers, and the principal has been really supportive,” Zachar said. “Out of all of our schools, it is the one with the most volunteers. There is nothing but a positive relationship there.”

Zachar said one of the best things about Reading Partners’ presence at John Muir is that the school has a full-time staff member, Erin Croix, placed there through a partnership with AmeriCorps, a civil society program.

“Part of the relationship with the school,” Zachar said, “is having Erin be part of the school and part of the family, if you will.”

Croix hosts Reading Partners in a designated room inside John Muir, where partners like Hart and Bella work together in two 45-minute sessions per week.

“We provide a really structured curriculum and there is no experience needed with tutoring or teaching in order to work with the students,” Zachar said. “It’s a very fool-proof curriculum.”

Each session uses an “I do, we do, you do” format, where the lesson begins with the partner reading to the student. That’s followed by literacy activities and reading together, and the session ends with the student reading a book on their own.

Students are chosen for the program by teachers who recommend children they think need more help.

“We assess the students four times a year to get them up to their reading level or be on track to reading levels,” Zachar said. “We take students who are anywhere between one month and two and half years behind.”

Hart, who just got back from teaching middle and high school students in Thailand, started with the program after hearing about it from her mom, also a volunteer at John Muir. Based on what she has seen with Bella since she began reading with her, she believes Reading Partners really works.

“It has done so much in terms of simple things, just like how the letters face,” Hart said. “But also her confidence is improving. She’s really taking the time to sound out everything. The first day she was so nervous, probably thinking, ‘Ugh, I have to read more than my peers.’ But now when she comes in and we see each other, there is this huge smile on her face.”

Croix said one of the things she loves about Reading Partners is its library, where students can take a book home and write a book report to come back and get another book.

“We love having the books for the kids,” she said, “and we could always use more donations because we have different reading levels and sometimes kids have to take home a book that is too hard or too easy because we don’t have enough.”

Hart said she believes that Reading Partners’ focus on intervening at young age is imperative.

“I think at Bella’s age, it is really easy to look at your neighbor’s work and copy it,” she said. “And this sort of one-on-one intervention is excellent for this age.”

jennifer@www.smdp.com