PASADENA, CA March 1, 2018 – Tomorrow schools across the nation will celebrate the National Education Association’s Read Across America program honoring the birthday of children’s author Dr. Seuss. At the Hillsides Education Center, a Pasadena therapeutic non-public school for students in first through 12th grade, students will mark the day by having community volunteers read Dr. Seuss books to the children. However, for one teacher, Rob Wherley, there won’t be much deviation from his daily routine. He will do what he has done every day for the last five years quietly and without fanfare – turn non-readers into book lovers.
Hillsides Education Center is unique because many of the students are in, or have been, in foster care. They move frequently to different placements, and as a result of switching schools, fall behind. Once behind, it’s difficult to catch up, and many of the students enter the school performing at three to seven levels below expected reading levels in decoding, fluency, and comprehension.
Five years ago, Wherley, a reading specialist and also a music teacher, decided to tackle the problem by creating an intensive, one-on-one daily reading intervention program called the Reading Rocks! Program. “The goal is to make up for lost time by providing the necessary 1-1 pull-out or push-in services that will result in gains of up to three grade levels per year,” he said.
He went about gathering tutors who could individually coach the students. Soon, he had a base of some 10 volunteers whom he trained in research-validated reading interventions. For the first year of the program, in the 2013- 2014 school year, the reading tutors worked with 20 students. Twenty-five percent of the children increased their fluency and/or comprehension levels by two or more grades, and the average annual reading fluency increase was 34 words correct per minute (wcpm).
In the following years, the program has grown phenomenally. In 2017, 41 students and almost 70 reading tutors participated in the program. Almost half of the students, 40 percent, improved by two or more grade levels in reading comprehension and/or fluency, and overall, students saw an average annual reading fluency increase of 55 wcpm. For this school year, Wherley predicts that 65 percent of 50 students will increase their reading skills by two or more grade levels.
Another key aspect to the success of the program is that former students in the program serve as reading tutors. “This is a great system because the children who have been through the program get the chance to become mentors, and the new kids are inspired by the fact that their tutors were once challenged by reading just like they are,” said Wherley.
The reading program has produced many success stories. One in particularly stands out for Wherley: a sixth-grade girl reading at kindergarten level. The girl was so embarrassed that whenever it was time to read in class, she would run out of the classroom. For the first four months, she refused to meet in the Reading Rocks! Program classroom. Then Wherley learned that the girl loved the Walking Dead TV show and comic books. The reading tutor brought in comic books for her to read, which motivated the girl to tackle reading. Today four years later, she is in 10th grade, completing her high school work and volunteering to read in class.
“It’s stories like this that inspire volunteers to continue to work together to help these kids, because it's evidence that the program is worthwhile and really works. It truly takes a village to help these vulnerable children,” said Wherley. “Reading is the key to success in life, and we hope we are giving hope and a future to children who otherwise might not have either.”
Hillsides Education Center, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2017, draws students from more than 20 different school districts throughout Southern California. The school not only provides academic instruction, but teaches social and emotional skills to create success beyond the classroom. To learn more about the school, please visit hillsideseducationcenter.org.