By Laura Herrington Watson
For the Courier
Early on a Friday morning, Columbine Hills Elementary School third-graders Alanah and Angel are hard at work reading with their own personal tutors.
Columbine Hills is one of 12 Jeffco elementary schools to test the Colorado Reading Corps program this year. The AmeriCorps initiative, based on a successful effort in Minnesota, is already showing results here in Jeffco, the only Colorado district to pilot the program.
Principal Maureen Kelly is thrilled to host the program in her school. “Our superintendent (Cindy Stevenson) is very proactive in helping students achieve and finding resources for struggling students,” Kelly says.
“The excitement is very high,” says Vickie Sarcletti, the school’s literacy instructional coach. “You can feel the energy and hear it in the halls” when students work with the tutors.
Kelly says her school is lucky to have two of the 20 reading tutors from the program. Tutors Abi Dvorak and Patrick Williams work with Sarcletti to operate the program and track student progress. Dvorak and Williams received intensive training through AmeriCorps in how to diagnose reading problems and prescribe proper intervention techniques for each student.
Together they identified students in kindergarten through third grade who struggle in reading and who will benefit from intervention. This year the program is focusing on helping second- and third-graders get their reading skills back on track, Kelly says.
Students diagnosed with learning disabilities already receive specialized intervention. Dvorak and Williams focus on students who might otherwise fall between the cracks — those with the capacity to read at grade level with some one-on-one attention.
The program first addresses students reading at just below grade level, then moves to students in the next lower level. Sarcletti says this allows students with the least distance to cover to catch up faster instead of falling further behind.
The two tutors began in August with the first group of 32 students.
Every day students in the program spend 20 minutes reading with Dvorak or Williams, who utilize up to 10 research-based literacy techniques, depending on a student’s needs. The tutors monitor the progress of each student, graduating the child when he or she reaches the target level. Kelly says graduated students still receive weekly progress reports to ensure they remain on track.
Kelly says Columbine Hills is an ideal school for the program, because 40 percent of its students get free or reduced-price lunches, which correlates with reading below grade level. Schools with a 50 percent free-and-reduced population are classified as Title I schools and receive federal money for specialized literacy interventionists. Columbine Hills falls just short of qualifying for the federal funding, leaving it in a difficult position.
Sarcletti and Kelly say a lot of students are below grade level because of high rates of family mobility in difficult economic times.
“I hear a lot of kids talk about moving in with their grandparents and other family members,” Kelly says.
Kelly and Sarcletti say their students are responding quickly to the new reading program.
“Teachers are already noticing a carryover effect of the reading intervention into the classroom,” says Sarcletti.
Dvorak and Williams celebrated a milestone Nov. 2, when the first two students graduated from the program, allowing new students to move in.
Dvorak attributes the success to the consistent individual attention and adult contact. Kelly agrees, saying, “One-on-one reading instruction is rare.”
Dvorak, 24, is local to Littleton, having graduated from Heritage High School. She says the Reading Corps program seemed like “the perfect next step” toward a career in education. Williams is a native of Denver.
A game of reading hot potato
Dvorak and Alanah read a zombie book using the duet reading method, which resembles a verbal game of hot potato, trading off reading every other word.
Dvorak says the method helps kids push the pace of their reading while eliminating errors. “It forces them to read the rest of the sentence instead of filling it in or guessing.”
At the end of the day, Williams says it’s difficult when students move on from the program. “They’re all my favorites,” he says.