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Posted: April 21, 2011

On the Horizon: Putting Kids on the Path to Literacy

Sally Giannini  breaks the news gently but firmly to her students.

“It’s almost time to go,” she says, perhaps knowing that the end-of-school bell will draw significant protests from the second-graders seated around her.

“But I’m not done yet,” replies a second-grader named Sean, his eyes unwilling to leave the pages of the book he’s reading.

That’s exactly the response an elementary-school  reading teacher wants to hear: kids complaining about having to leave the classroom.

And in many ways, it’s what the APS Education Foundation’s Horizon Campaign is all about.

Giannini and a team of teachers at Bel-Air Elementary are among the first recipients of the Foundation’s Horizon Awards – grants that flow from donors throughout the city directly into Albuquerque Public Schools classrooms. The financial support Bel-Air has received from the Horizon Campaign’s network of businesses, individuals and even fellow APS employees is transforming some kids’ painful academic struggles into quantifiable (and certainly audible) stardom.

Just listen along as her group of three second-graders – children who have struggled to read at grade level, but are now making great strides – push their way through a book called “The Problem With Meli.”

The kids – Sean, Anthony Ray and Michelle – are reading aloud as Meli, a perky West Highland terrier, greets everyone she meets with a determined – and incessant – bark. The text features challenging, almost insurmountable words for a second-grader. But every stumble only serves to make these kids more determined.

They want to read the story. They want to know more. And they just won’t stop until they’ve read the entire book – regardless of what time it is.

This kind of small-group instruction and challenging curricula help get uncertain readers back on track. With several students at Bel-Air in need of such help, Giannini and her fellow teachers, Jessica Maes and Mary Wight, applied for the Horizon Awards, a competitive-grant process that targets Literacy, Fine Arts, Middle/High School Activities and Science/Technology/Engineering/Math proposals.

With the $5,000 granted to the Bel-Air team by the Foundation Board’s Disbursement Committee, Giannini went about implanting her plan. She purchased a nationally known “Leveled Literacy Intervention” program that provides books and curriculum specifically intended to improve kids’ reading abilities. The reading kits contain four copies of 110 to 120 student books, plus take-home books and a technology package which helps teachers monitor progress. Even writing books are included so kids may improve their writing skills.

Reading intervention,  Giannini notes, “is one of the hardest things you’ll do. But it’s also  one of the most rewarding things there is.”

Those kinds of rewards require community support – and the Horizon Campaign has plenty of it, particularly in the literacy field. Partners such as PNM, Bradbury Stamm, Wells Fargo and the APS/United Way Employee Campaign are key contributors to the effort.

With the school day near its end, and Meli’s barking silenced (for now), Giannini’s second-graders get themselves ready to go home. This small group is reading much better than only a few months ago, and it’s obvious school is fun again for them. It’s also a blast for their teacher, who proudly talks about progress and promise. She reflects movingly about what literacy can do for confidence, and what confidence can do for the future.

Her Exhibit A is a former student – a kid who, like this group, once struggled to read but who finally heard the click of words finally falling into place.

One day, the student came to school with a proud message for the teacher and anyone else who would listen.

“I am smart,” the kid said.

Ah, the sweet sound of success.

Watch the Video

On the Horizon: Putting Kids on the Path to Literacy from APS in Motion on Vimeo.

The APS Foundation Horizon Awards are made possible through the generosity and community spirit of many organizations and individuals. Key contributors to the Horizon Campaign include the Larry H. Miller Foundation, PNM, Technology Integration Group, The Stocker Foundation, Sandia National Laboratories, and Comcast.