Determined Young Child Overcomes Challenges and Learns to Read
By Eric Steckel | July 7, 2020
When working with struggling students, timing is crucial. In Juliana’s* case, we experienced both good and bad timing, seasoned by a team of caring adults who would not quit on a young girl determined to learn to read.
Three years ago, when Juliana was in first grade, her teacher referred her to Gwen Stephens, Succeeding by Reading program coordinator at Burckhalter Elementary School. “She needed some help with rudimentary things, like sounds of letters. She was way behind for a first grader, so I was glad to take her,” Gwen remembers. “She was enthusiastic enough, but she was not getting it. And I was really concerned.”
Gwen reached out to Juliana’s teacher to find out what might be going on. She was disappointed to find out that Juliana had unexpectedly dropped out of school, and nobody knew what had become of her.
The following year, Juliana returned to Burckhalter, with a similar outcome. Due to erratic attendance, Juliana had to leave the program. “I was really sad about that.” Gwen said.
“This program works because of the dedication of the tutors, and the way it’s structured, it motivates the kids to challenge themselves to do better.” – Gwen Stephens, Succeeding by Reading program coordinator
This past year, it seemed as if the third time would be the charm. Juliana pleaded, “Miss Gwen, please, please, can I come to your class?” The school principal made a deal with them. “If you come every day for a month, we’ll consider you.” Seizing the opportunity, Juliana said, “I’m going to do that. I promise you, I’m going to do that.”
From that day forward, Juliana kept track of her attendance, and every time she saw Gwen, she reported her progress. Finally, she reached a month. “Miss Gwen, it’s been a whole month. I’m so happy! Now, can I come?” Gwen didn’t really have a place for her, but saw that the child was so enthusiastic and had “exerted her own will.” Gwen agreed to tutor her personally. Finally, timing was working for them.
Juliana poured herself into her work, but something still wasn’t quite right. Gwen consulted with Ann Rosenberg, one of the tutors in her clinic. “She’s not really seeing the letters right. She gets them mixed up,” she explained.
“Maybe she needs glasses?” Ann suggested. “Let me see what I can do.” As a retired social worker who had worked in Oakland Unified School District, Ann went to work. Although Juliana was not “her” student, she got Juliana’s mother’s phone number from the school office and helped arrange a visit to an eye clinic, and very soon Juliana had new glasses.
“It’s easy for me, I like making connections for people, it’s just part of my brain,” Ann said. “That was how I was introduced to her. She came and gave me a hug when she had the glasses.”
“When I tutor kids, we do a lot of reading, but I always ask children, ‘How is your week going? What’s been the best thing this week? What’s the worst thing that’s happened this week?’ So kids can get that stuff out.” — Ann Rosenberg, Succeeding by Reading tutor
With another stroke of good timing, Ann had an opening for a new student. Gwen asked her if she’d like to take on Juliana. Ann and Juliana had bonded over the glasses, but their one-on-one relationship grew deeper. “When I tutor kids, we do a lot of reading, but I always ask children, ‘How is your week going? What’s been the best thing this week? What’s the worst thing that’s happened this week?’ So kids can get that stuff out.” Ann explained. “I’m sort of a wrap-around kind of person. Nothing is just focused on the reading, it’s about the relationship.”
In the course of just three months of working together, Juliana made fantastic progress with Ann. “She was very hard on herself. So, I just tried to reinforce everything positive that I could, and tell her it’s okay. You don’t have to be perfect, it’s about progress, not perfection.” To help motivate Juliana to read for enjoyment, they chose a graphic book that Juliana loved. “So we were reading the book together and she was doing so well. That was a real motivator because she really wanted to read that book.”
Bad timing struck again in the form of COVID-19. Juliana was on course to reach grade level by the end of the academic year when schools closed. Unfortunately, many students in the district have little access to technology and the internet, and less opportunity to learn at home. Without further intervention, Juliana will likely begin fourth grade behind her peers in reading, despite her hard work and progress.
“It’s so frustrating having the year cut short like this. But she was doing better and she was so happy,” Ann said.
“I’m hoping I can see her [next year] because we didn’t get to grade level. I would love to take her again. I really would like to get her all the way up to grade level.” Gwen insists. “She just needs that last little push.”
While researching for our story, Ann reached out to Juliana to find out the name of the graphic book. As it turns out, Juliana has a tablet and internet access, and the two are looking forward to reading together over the summer.
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* Name changed to maintain confidentiality