Learning to read well is challenging for many of our community’s children. Currently, 72 percent of children enrolled in the Santa Fe Public Schools don’t read proficiently at grade level. This means they can’t fully access the materials they need to master the skills and knowledge we expect them to learn. This a serious systemic problem, since those who can’t read fall further and further behind as they move from grade to grade. If they cannot read well enough to obtain even a high school diploma, they are all but guaranteed a life of low earnings, frustration, disappointment and failure. Each year, approximately 1,300 Santa Fe Public Schools elementary school children need additional assistance with reading.

Reading Quest, a local nonprofit, has entered into a partnership with the Santa Fe Public Schools to support more than 160 children every week with multisensory, phonics-based reading intervention support and teacher coaching.

Reading Quest has seven years of data from their four-week-long summer Reading is Magic camps, offered in partnership with the Santa Fe School for the Arts & Sciences. The data show that students who begin a year or more below grade level advance, on average, 1.04 years in their reading levels within two weeks. Reading Quest recently has taken the successful strategies from this program and parlayed them into a much broader range of reading initiatives. Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, United Way of Santa Fe County has supported Reading Quest by providing free space at its Early Learning Center in the former Kaune Elementary School.

Reading Quest provides year-round, free, affordable, individual and small-group tutoring to children who typically are a year or more behind their grade level, focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on grades one to four. Getting children to reading proficiency by the end of third grade means that ongoing remediation will be less likely.

The Reading Quest team is composed of professionally trained tutors, highly trained volunteers and 27 exceptional teen tutors from middle school to college age.

With generous support from numerous community sponsors, Reading Quest has achieved a remarkable impact over the past year in training principals, teachers, teacher aides, students, parents, community volunteers and teen tutors in hands-on, engaging literacy practices.

In close collaboration with the school district, Reading Quest provides workshops for principals and teachers, and works closely with several south-side schools.

This year, Reading Quest and the May Center for Learning are providing an intensive literacy after-school program at Sweeney Elementary School for 24 second- and third-grade students, in addition to literacy coaching support for teachers, thanks to grants from the city Children and Youth Commission and the Santa Fe Community Foundation. Through a Baby Fund grant, Reading Quest is also collaborating with the Capital High School and Santa Fe High School Grads program for teen parents to learn about growth mindset, interactive read-aloud practices and how to teach reading to their children.

What accounts for the powerful results that Reading Quest has achieved with our children?

Rayna Dineen, the founder and executive director of Reading Quest, has created a reading program that combines the best scientifically based practices, built on a foundation of teaching phonics. The program is enriched with sustained attention to ensuring that children understand the meaning of new words they encounter, in a safe, comfortable, entertaining and multisensory environment that uses every conceivable way to engage kids in improving their self-confidence and abilities as readers, and that continuously pushes them to go further.

You really have to see it to believe and understand it. I spent five hours of observation last month at the Reading Quest Center watching how the magic happens. I talked to parents and children and was told by several that the program has been a “game changer” for their children. I talked to a mom whose children were reading at a first-grade level in fourth grade, and whose children’s attendance at the summer Reading is Magic Camp, and subsequent continuation of tutoring at the center, has brought them up to grade level. The kids attested to their relatively recent enjoyment of reading.

How do Dineen and her team get these kids so excited about reading?

One component is that they sing songs and use American Sign Language, which help kids learn some of the rules of our very challenging language, such as: “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking and says its name; the second one doesn’t say anything at all.”

Besides the huge number of books that kids can read for homework, read with tutors and volunteers, and read for fun, there are wonderful, original board reading games that Dineen has designed — like the Nitro Reading Race Game and the Take Me Home animal adoption game that allow students to accrue gold coins, dragons, Matchbox cars and other goodies.

The reading program is mixed in with lots of physical activity, including moving from one delicious reading spot to another — couches with fairy drapes, beautiful soft pillow animals to sit and lean on, and a two-story loft castle that can be climbed on and sat under.

Anne McGovern, a special education teacher with the district, says the program has made an impact.

“I love what [Reading Quest] has done for my students and hope it will soon be integrated in every class districtwide, starting in kindergarten. … [The program] is the best way to improve outcomes for struggling, emergent readers.”

Clearly Santa Fe Public Schools believes this too, as the district has contracted for 700 more tutoring hours this year.

To learn more and support the program, visit www.readingquestcenter.org.

Lois Rudnick is a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Public Education. She lives in Santa Fe.

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