Diane Perry has a secret weapon, at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in the effort to get her 6-year-old granddaughter, Rhiannon, up in time for school.

“I just say, ‘It’s Courtney day!’ and out of bed she comes,” says Perry with a laugh.

Courtney Reynolds, a senior at Bonny Eagle High School, is Rhiannon’s reading mentor.

“She makes my day,” says Courtney, 17. “It really boosts my confidence to know I’m helping her.”

Two afternoons a week, Courtney and 14 other Bonny Eagle students hop on a bus for the trip to nearby Buxton Center Elementary School. The students are volunteers with Teen Trendsetters, a mentoring program that pairs teenagers with elementary-aged students who have fallen behind six months or more in reading.

For Rhiannon – a first-grader with a gap in her ever-present grin as she waits for two front teeth to arrive – working with Countney has been a journey from dread to excitement.

“She’s so excited that someone is coming to read just with her,” says Perry. “I saw a difference within two weeks. Her knowledge of what she was reading, her fluency. She wants to read.”

The Teen Trendsetters program was founded by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in 2002. After the success of a pilot program in Windham in 2012 and 2013, it was expanded to 20 schools in Maine this year. The foundation’s president and CEO, Liza McFadden, says early intervention is critical.

“In education circles, what we say is people are learning to read until third grade and then they’re reading to learn,” McFadden says. “We’re finding that the earlier we can reach these (struggling) kids and get them in the program, the greater the likelihood that they catch up.”

Studies show that if they don’t catch up by third grade, they may be on track to become yet another sad statistic. According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 88 percent of high school dropouts were struggling readers in the third grade who continued to flail.

Teen Trendsetters seems to be providing kids with the boost they need.

An evaluation by the University of Miami last year found that more than 50 percent of the first-graders in the program in Florida improved enough to read on grade level within one year.

Part of the charm seems to be the comfort the young readers have with their mentors.

“It’s a high school student, not a grown-up,” says Buxton Center Elementary literacy specialist Mary Lou Shuster. “That’s different. It’s more like a big sister for them.”

“They’re enamored with these high school kids coming in,” says Bonny Eagle High Principal Paul Penna, “and they look so forward to seeing them when they walk through the door.”

When big kids take the time to read with little kids, says Penna, it sends a powerful message.

“The message … is that it’s important to read.”

Last fall, when 18-year-old Megan Brown started working with 6-year-old Jacob Rice, reading was not high on Jacob’s list of fun things to do.

“It was almost like he was too nervous to try,” Brown said.

Not anymore. On a Tuesday afternoon in February, Jacob sits in a classroom with Brown, eagerly making his way through a copy of “Brave Father Mouse.” Together, they sound out words and talk about each story he reads.

Brown, the editor of the Bonny Eagle High School newspaper and a member of the National Honor Society, volunteered for the program the minute she heard about it. It’s gratifying, she says, to see how far Jacob – and all the other mentees – have come.

“A lot of the kids struggle,” she said, “so it’s nice when they can catch onto something. Makes you feel really good.”

Each child is given 17 books and access to 4,000 more online. Parents – an integral part of the program – are required to make sure those take-home materials are used.

They’re asked to sign a contract promising to listen to their child read at least twice a week.

And that, says literacy specialist Shuster, is the icing on the Teen Trendsetter cake.

“Parents always ask, ‘What can we do to help?'” Shuster says. “Here’s what. The most important thing parents can do for their child is to read with them. A lot.”

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