After President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Isaac Coleman, Catherine Alter, and a few friends from WNC for Change were ready for a new challenge.
Some members of the group opted for organizations like the Pisgah View Community Peace Garden or Manna Food Bank, but Mr. Coleman was especially troubled that so many children, particularly from public housing, were not reading at grade level. They decided to do something about that, and Read to Succeed was the result.
“Children weren’t learning to read,” said Coleman, a 30-year rehabilitation specialist with the Asheville Housing Authority and the City of Asheville, in a recent telephone interview. “And if a child doesn’t read well by the third grade the whole school experience will be much more difficult, even to the point of not graduating.”
Ms. Alter, a former dean at the University of Denver programs in social work, wrote the first grant proposal and secured $25,000; she now is the board’s treasurer, grant writer, and administrator. Mr. Coleman is the board chair.
Today Read to Succeed has 45 volunteer coaches working with 49 students, and the program operates at Hall Fletcher, Claxton, Ira B. Jones, and Vance elementary schools. The coaches stay with the same child for up to four years. To prepare them, Mr. Coleman said, entails “thirty-five hours of training, twelve sessions over four to five weeks. Once that is over they meet with the children twice a week for forty-five minutes each.”
The training practicum is Orton Gillingham Wilson, a multisensory approach to reading that is deeply grounded in phonics. The training is an essential step in the rapport and relationships that develop between coaches and students. The approach requires intense one-on-one interactions between the participants, and the coaches develop relationships that are very like mentorship. It is a unique combination of coaches’ creativity and a scripted, structured, step-by-step approach to learning to read.
Jackie Simms is an Ethical Culture officiant who participated in the first Building Bridges, the racial justice program here in Asheville, and has taken part in every session since. She is also a Read to Succeed tutor. She says, “I’ve been with the same child for four years, since kindergarten, and she is making great progress. And there is great training and support. Each school has a lead coach and we all meet together monthly.”
Simms invited her student’s family to a recent production of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which she portrayed Calpurnia, the cook and caregiver for lawyer Atticus Finch’s two children. It was the first time that her nine-year-old reading student had attended a theater production. Simms used original materials she developed from her experience preparing for her role to meet the week’s reading goals.
Coaches collect their child from class and then find a quiet spot, often in the media center, to work together. When the children meet goals, they receive small gifts such as plastic or ceramic hearts and stickers. They often get books as gifts to take home too. “It is a lot to learn,” Simms said in a recent interview at Ira. B. Jones Elementary. “You can mix together up to eight strategies and techniques in a single lesson plan.”
Another coach is Rich McConnell, a retired trial lawyer, who lives in Black Mountain. He took the training in spring of 2013 and has been working with a first grader since October. “She is doing quite well,” he said. “I am very pleased.” He spoke directly after having administered seven parts of an eight-part assessment exercise to the student. “She knocked it out of the park,” McConnell said proudly. It is not always easy, however. “Keeping their attention can be a challenge. They can be awfully squirmy. It is hard for them to sit for 45 minutes,” he noted.
To deal with that, coaches use kinesthetic strategies, perhaps getting the child to get up walk across the room and then color something in. And that small opportunity to be active is often enough to get them focused again. The kinesthetic is one of three main types of sensory input that Orton Gillingham relies upon. The other two are visual and auditory. “It is an approach that has been shown to work particularly well with students who come from low-literacy households,” Alter said.
Most of the coaches, Coleman said, are retired professionals. “They understand what is going on in the school system.” From his years working in public housing he said that he saw many students “who have no interest in learning. They start out not wanting to read,” a situation that troubled him deeply. “It was very emotional for me,” he said, “it was heavy on my heart and mind.”
In a difficult economic climate Coleman, Alter, and the other founding members wanted to help families in a very practical way. The Asheville Housing Authority was their first sponsor, and the first grant came from Grinnell College, Alter’s alma mater, in Grinnell, Iowa. It was a bit of a Catch-22 at first. “The organizations that fund programs don’t fund you without a track record and to get a track record you need money,” she said, laughing. So the Grinnell program, which regularly provides seed money for alumni projects, was a godsend.
Read to Succeed began to come together in 2009 and was incorporated in July 2010. Already it has made a significant contribution to Asheville City Schools, as teachers had not received any special reading instruction that focused on students from low-literacy families.
They had been using a “Whole-language” model, which hasn’t necessarily been proven effective with this particular population. That has to do with how well prepared children are when they start school. For example, Alter said low-literacy students first start school having heard about 30 million words, but more mainstream students are likely to have heard about 100 million.
Julie Sherman was also on board from the beginning, along with Julie Adkins, Pat Griffin, a retired Asheville City Schools principal, and Judith Pegossi, who handles parent outreach along with Coleman. Ms. Sherman is the volunteer coordinator and her ongoing excitement about Read to Succeed came across loud and clear in a recent telephone interview.
“I used to hold the coaching meetings in my living room,” she said, but then the program grew. And a sense of growth and expansion comes across in her remarks too. Since the group formed in the aftermath of the presidential elections, at first most of the people who were interested were Democrats. “We had a whole lot of Democrats,” she said, “and we still do, but now we have Republicans too. We have people of all sorts of political persuasions.”
Sherman stressed the board’s “very strong commitment.” And that has attracted more resources in turn, so that now each school has a lead coach, some of whom are drawn from the AmeriCorps program. “We are getting a good reputation,” she said with discernable satisfaction. And she noted that Read to Succeed will offer a summer camp for two dozen children for a week, at which they will have both activities and reading twice a day.
There has been significant evidence that students may lose some of what they have learned during extended summer vacations, and this is a way to address that. And, of course, it provides a fun experience for the kids.
Sherman also stressed that Read to Succeed is getting its recruitment efforts underway for the school year that begins in the fall with training in August. “It is just a deeply rewarding experience for our coaches and it helps the whole community,’ she said.
Cathy Reynolds, whose granddaughter Chloe, is part of the program at Claxton, couldn’t agree more. “I’ve seen such tremendous progress. In first grade she couldn’t read. Now she can read just about any word you put in front of her by sounding it out.
“The whole program is such a blessing. She goes above and beyond,” she said of Chloe’s coach Michelle Deer. “Chloe just enjoys it so much. I just hope my other granddaughter Chelsea, who is five, can be part of it next year,” Mrs. Reynolds added. “They work miracles.
To find out more about being a volunteer for Read to Succeed, contact Julie Sherman at [email protected] or at (828) 251-4949 or (510) 459-3208.