By Dana Delgado
Out of a desire to do something to best impact their community, the Leander religious community founded Education Connection in 2010. It was in response to the request made by city leaders to join the fight against illiteracy and dropout rates.
For most people, the ability to read is a given, a rite of passage that seems to happen rather naturally through a series of logical steps. To others, it’s a daunting task whose mastery is an unending arduous journey.
Learning to read, however, is anything but a simple process according to Literacy Inc. It is a complex cognitive process that involves decoding symbols in order to derive meaning and is shaped by the reader’s prior knowledge, experiences, attitude, and language community which is culturally and socially situated. To become proficient, the process requires continuous practice, development, and refinement.
The state considers higher level thinking skills such as analysis, evaluation and synthesis as critical skills for academic success and underscores them in the mandated student assessments beginning in third grade.
Fundamentally however, reading as most educational experts agree, reigns supreme as the single most important skill for not only academic success but for life in general. Without the ability to read by the third grade, the possibility of a student to drop out of school, live in poverty, and be incarcerated rise dramatically according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). According to a 2015 study conducted by the DOE and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the United States can’t read above a fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read.
With the mission of having every child reading on grade level by third grade, Education Connection launched its initiative in one elementary school in the Leander Independent School District. This past school year, over 800 volunteer literacy partners served nearly 2,000 students in 69 schools across a host of central Texas school districts including Austin, Del Valle, Lake Travis, Manor, Pflugerville, and Round Rock.
Among those districts being served was Liberty Hill ISD, which joined the fold for the 2016-17 academic year with a service site at Liberty Hill Elementary.
By design, the program is simple. Volunteer literacy partners coordinate with specific teachers and meet with two students individually for 15 minutes every week from October to May.
The results have been impressive.
The organization reports that surveys reveal improvement in reading fluency and student reading confidence. According to reports, some students improved by two reading levels.
Toni Hicks, LHISD Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, praised the partnership with Education Connection and said the program proved its effectiveness during its first year of implementation.
Community advocate and retired educator Mary Lyn Jones, who was instrumental in implementing the program at Liberty Hill Elementary School, saw the devastating effects of reading deficiencies while working with Leander ISD as the Drop-out Prevention Coordinator.
“I saw the need for reading,” she said. “I spent the last 10 years of my (education) career as the Dropout Prevention Coordinator for Leander ISD. The majority of the students at risk of dropping out were behind on the number of credits needed to graduate. The students not reading on grade level by third grade were at a higher risk of dropping out of school.”
As Literacy Partner Coordinator for Liberty Hill ISD, Jones is gearing up to expand the non-profit’s footprint in Liberty Hill by expanding to all of the district’s elementary schools.
She is also looking to volunteer as a literacy partner now that her grandchildren are attending LHISD schools. Jones is hoping other volunteers join her on the growing list of literacy partners that now includes some community leaders such as retired educators Dalton West, Jan Tredemeyer and Anne Winters, real estate agent Michelle Van Natter, attorney Jamie Etzkorn, current LHISD administrator Hicks, and Liberty Hill Elementary Assistant Principal Shellie Brewer.
Other volunteers serving in critical program positions are Stephanie Letzerich (LHE volunteer coordinator), Donna McNally (LHE volunteer and Education Connection coach), and LHE volunteers Elizabeth Shifflett, Shirley Berry and Jeanne Weight.
Efforts are underway to recruit volunteers for the coming school year. With the program growing rapidly, there is an increased need in literacy partners to make a difference in a student’s ability to read.
“I think the most rewarding thing about supporting a student is to see the confidence gained in their reading ability,” said Jones. “They are motivated to read more and excited to obtain purple panther paws in their reading folder.”
Volunteers need to be at least 18 years old and be able to make a 30 minute commitment per week to read with two children from October through May. They should be good listeners, supportive, and positive role models as they read aloud to students. Background checks are conducted.
For more information, email the organization at email@example.com or visit the website, which includes volunteer registration, at www.education-connection.org.