The fourth-grader was reluctant to read.

He disliked the written word. But he ate, slept and breathed one character.

So Paul Aburrow worked with that.

“I found out later on he was incredibly interested in Spider-Man,” said Aburrow, a participant in Rockville’s mentoring program. He bought a few Spider-Man comic books. “I said to him, ‘I’ll make you a deal. You read these Spider-Man comic books to me, they’re yours.’ He opened up the comic books and started to read.”

Aburrow joins about 30 volunteers to help mentor fourth- and fifth-graders at three locations in Rockville — Beall Elementary, Ritchie Park Elementary and the Twinbrook Community Center — as part of a free program that helps build academic skills and confidence.

The Rockville mentoring program will roll into its 17th year next month, pairing adults and high school students with elementary students for an hour of one-on-one collaboration a week. Mentors and students gather for 20 to 30 minutes of academic time followed by 30 to 40 minutes of activity time.

“It creates a relaxed environment,” said Cynthia Bangali, community services program coordinator for the City of Rockville, who designed the program. “And it’s really fun, yet there is structure.”

About 10 percent of mentors are high school students, and the rest are adults. About 30 mentors participate each year.

Teachers and school counselors help select students who might benefit from the program, Bangali said. Teachers provide information about selected students, including the areas in which they struggle; teaching techniques that the child responds to; and the child’s personality traits. Mentors go through a training program to learn a few tricks of the trade and how to best help a child excel in the limited time available.

Most children benefit from the one-on-one relationship, said Caroline Capoccia, school counselor at Beall. Some students have siblings and single mothers, limiting the attention they get from their parent, she said. The mentor program changes that.

“They have someone there who is there just for them,” Capoccia said.

Benefits often stretch beyond academic improvement, she said. Confidence tends to grow.

“Sometimes, we see an increase in confidence in the area that we’re targeting,” Capoccia said. “Sometimes, you can see an overall increase in confidence, just interpersonally, in the way they carry themselves.”

For Aburrow, who is retired and headed into his sixth year as a mentor, watching the confidence grow is a huge perk.

“Every one of the kids I’ve had, I’m proud to say, has really developed,” he said. “In that sense it has been very rewarding — to see them really achieve, to come forward.”

Aburrow has mentored one child each of the five years he has participated.

Because the mentors are volunteers, the program comes at little cost to the city, Bangali said. Costs include fingerprinting for mentors, program marketing and a van to take students home from the program. Bangali did not provide an exact cost amount.

The program faced some challenges when Montgomery County public schools cut activity buses in fiscal 2011. Students who relied on the buses to get home after the program had to find alternate transportation.

Parents work together to form carpools, and Beall uses a city van to take students home. The van holds 14 people, limiting the number of students who can participate in the program.

It’s still something of a concern,” Bangali said. “It takes away from the school being able to put in their resources.” SStill, the program is in full swing, gearing up for the 2011-12 school year. Some students even ask to return a second year, Bangali said.

And that’s fine, she said, because the program prevents students from heading down a bad road.

“An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” Bangali said.