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Blugolds help area youth overcome reading challenges

| Judy Berthiaume

Edward Chumas was a bright little boy, so his mother, a former teacher, was baffled when he struggled to learn to read during his early years at Meadowview Elementary School in Eau Claire.

Despite supportive teachers and private tutors, Edward was falling behind his peers during his first years of school. He also was becoming increasingly discouraged, his self-confidence all but gone.

Eventually, it was determined that Edward has dyslexia, a type of learning disability that makes it difficult to process language in the correct sequence.

“My first thought was to quickly find a way to solve the problem so it would go away,’” says Julie Chumas, Edward’s mother. “It didn’t take long to realize that there were no easy answers.”

Julie and Edward Chumas with UW-Eau Claire graduate

So while the family finally could identify the reason Edward struggled to read, they still didn’t know how to help him deal with the challenges he was facing.

“I did a lot of reading and connected with other parents whose kids have similar problems,” Chumas says. “And his teachers were working hard to help him, but they have lots of kids to teach so there is only so much they can do.”

As she looked for ways to help her son, Meadowview staff and a friend pointed her toward the Human Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

The HDC’s summer Academic Intervention Clinic, which provides intensive reading assessment and intervention services to schoolchildren, sounded like a good fit for Edward.

“That’s when everything changed,” Chumas says of Edward’s first summer in the program. “We were in crisis mode. Despite a high IQ and big vocabulary, he felt like he was dumb and had no confidence. The summer reading program gave him his confidence back. He thrived with the one-on-one attention, and the students figured out exactly how to motivate him. He began to see that he could do it, and then was motivated to work even harder. I can’t say enough good things about the program.”

The university’s program trains undergraduate students to develop and deliver evidence-based interventions to school-aged children who need extra help with their reading, says Dr. Michael Axelrod, director of the HDC.

“We developed our reading program based on what research says works best for students who struggle, and we monitor the students’ reading skills closely with research-backed assessment tools to make sure they make progress in the program,” Axelrod says, noting that school psychology graduate students supervise the undergraduate interventionists.

Based on outcome data collected by the interventionists, as well as feedback from teachers and parents, the program is working extremely well, Axelrod says.

“Our data show that the children are making significant improvements in their reading as a result of our efforts,” Axelrod says. “We hear from teachers that the children are more fluent in their reading, and parents tell us that their children’s confidence has improved. So by every measure, the program is making a positive difference for these kids.”

During the summer months, the clinic is based on the UW-Eau Claire campus.

But during the academic year, the AIC sends its intervention specialists into several area elementary schools — including Edward’s school — to work directly with young students who struggle with reading. The Blugolds help students with their word fluency as well as their reading comprehension.

“Our program focuses only on reading because that’s where there is the greatest need,” Axelrod says. “We found that our model was working, so we are putting all of our resources into offering schools a quality product that we know works for their students.”

When the school-year program began in 2009 and the summer program in 2010, the clinic enrolled fewer than 10 children. In the years since, program leaders have looked for ways to meet the needs of more children without compromising the program’s quality.

This fall, 22 highly trained UW-Eau Claire undergraduates are working as reading interventionists to help 50 students in three elementary schools in Eau Claire and one in Chippewa Falls improve their reading skills.

Through the program, the reading interventionists meet with two elementary students at a time for 30 minutes twice a week in their school. Five graduate students monitor and supervise the work of the undergraduates.

The schools’ willingness to open their doors to the university’s reading interventionists during the regular school day is an indication of the confidence area educators have in the university’s ability to help their students, Axelrod says.

“It’s unheard of in education circles for schools to allow this kind of program in their building during the school day,” Axelrod says. “My colleagues around the country are amazed that we can do this. But the schools trust us enough to give us this opportunity to work with their students during regular school hours. We take that seriously, and we work hard to provide a high-quality program and a track record that proves it works.”

Katie Engel and Dr. Del Boley

Everyone involved says the university’s reading program is producing impressive results.

At Meadowview, all the students who are in the program have increased their reading skills, including the students who are enrolled in the special education program, says Katie Engel, the school psychologist who coordinates the program at her school.

Engel says that building the reading clinic into Meadowview’s school day has made it even more successful because it’s a natural part of the students’ day. Students approach their reading sessions as they would any other part of their school day, which can influence everything from their effort to their behavior, she says.

Bringing the university students into the school also makes it easier for the interventionists to share with teachers the specific strategies that are working for individual students, strategies the teachers can then incorporate into their classrooms, Engel says. Teachers also can share observations or information about students that might be helpful to the interventionists.

The result is a collaborative program that clearly is benefitting the students who are enrolled, says Engel, a UW-Eau Claire graduate.

Given the growing budget challenges facing Eau Claire schools, the willingness of the university to bring its well-established and proven program into local schools is greatly appreciated, says Dr. Del Boley, the principal at Meadowview.

“Our resources are very limited so partnering with an agency that already has a program that they’ve demonstrated can help increase our students’ achievement is very helpful,” says Boley. “This isn’t something we could do on our own so the external support from the university is invaluable.”

By third grade, literacy skills contribute greatly to a student’s success whether they are solving a math word problem or working on a science project, Boley says. So if there is a gap in reading skills, it becomes increasingly important to address it or those students risk falling behind in all academic areas, she says.

The university’s interventionists are having great success in helping to close the reading gaps for the 22 Meadowview students who currently are enrolled in the program, Boley says.

“They’re finding ways to help kids who’ve struggled with their reading to be more successful,” Boley says. “When children succeed, they’re more motivated to learn and to put in more effort. Success breeds success, their confidence increases and we see that gap start to close.”

Meadowview staff reviews student data each semester to determine which students would gain the most from the university’s program, says Engel.

Some students continue in the program every semester, while others make so much progress that they no longer need the additional support, she says.

“Thirty minutes twice a week doesn’t seem like that much additional support but it really does make a huge difference for these children,” Boley says. “That added time to practice and to learn strategies helps a lot more than you might expect.”

One of the strengths of the reading program is the communication — both strategic and informal — that happens among the reading interventionists, teachers and parents, says Dr. Melissa Coolong-Chaffin, associate director of the Academic Intervention Clinic.

The graduate students who oversee the interventionists coordinate regular meetings with teachers and school staff, says Coolong-Chaffin.

Those planned meetings allow them to review student progress, share strategies that are working for individual students, and to identify changes that may be necessary to meet a student’s individual needs, she says.

The data are important for planning the appropriate intervention to meet each student’s need, as well as to be able to accurately communicate to parents their child’s progress, Coolong-Chaffin says.

“When we tell a parent that their child is making a particular improvement, we have the data to back it up,” Axelrod says. “We can tell them specifically what intervention techniques were used and the improvements that results from each of them. We know what we are telling them is accurate. We can say with confidence that their child can do certain things because we’ve taught them, we’ve measured it and we’ve followed up on it. We check our data over and over.”

The graduate and undergraduates who participate in the program are carefully selected and well-trained, Coolong-Chaffin says. Training focuses on everything from how to act like a professional in a school to doing the actual interventions to collecting the data that’s critical to the program’s ongoing success, she says.

Since many of the reading interventionists are studying education, special education, psychology or communication sciences and disorders, the opportunity to work within school settings makes the experience even more meaningful to them as they are preparing for their future careers in education-related fields, Axelrod says.

The program gives students knowledge about evidence-based intervention strategies but also a level of confidence that comes from having experiences within a school, Axelrod says, adding that both the skills and confidence are helpful as students begin their student teaching or look for their first job.

“Wherever they go next, they bring with them a unique skill set and real-world experiences that they can’t always gain through their coursework,” Axelrod says. “That can be a huge benefit for the students as they are preparing to enter the job market, and it can be great for the school that hires them.

“The legacy of this program is that students will go on to graduate school or into the teaching profession and will be leaders who know how to engage in best practices. That part is really important to us. We are educators and we want to send people out into the schools who can make a real difference. And we know that helping kids to be better readers makes an important difference.”

For Becca Dirschl, a senior psychology major who has worked as an intervention specialist for three semesters, the clinic is reaffirming her goal to someday work as a school counselor.

“Just being a part of something that goes beyond our campus has given me a sense of purpose in what I’m learning,” says Dirschl, noting that she’s enjoyed seeing how the child development theories she’s studied in her classes play out in a real-world situation. “This experience has confirmed my previous ideas about becoming a school counselor, but it also reminds me how much I love working with kids.”

Seeing the students she works with gain skills and confidence is motivating because she knows she’s making a positive and lasting difference in the child’s life, Dirschl says.

“I love how excited the students get when they read a passage without any errors or when they know a word they did not know before,” says Dirschl, a native of Green Bay. “It’s those little steps along the way that remind me how much we are helping the students.”

Those little steps add up to huge gains for the children who are struggling to read, says Julie Chumas, Edward’s mother.

Thanks to the university and school partnership, Edward, a current fifth-grader at Meadowview, is thriving despite his dyslexia.

“He’s wired differently,” Julie Chumas says of her son. ”He’s always going to have dyslexia. He can’t learn the way most kids can but the university students and his teachers are finding ways to work with him and encourage him and show him he can do it.”

The transformation in Edward — who just a few years ago hated school but now heads out the door with a smile on his face each morning — is nothing short of amazing, Chumas says.

“I had to choke back tears when the student working with him told me recently that Edward’s reading at grade level,” Chumas says. “The university and their students, along with his teachers, are meeting his needs in extraordinary ways.”


Photo captions

Top photo
As a reading interventionist, UW-Eau Claire senior psychology major Becca Dirschl helps students at an area elementary school improve their reading skills.


Side photo 1: Julie Chumas and her son, Edward, meet with a UW-Eau Claire graduate student who oversees the reading program to discuss the fifth-grader's progress.

Side photo 2
: Katie Engel, school psychologist, and Dr. Del Boley, principal, say all their students in the university program are making gains in their reading.