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Reading Assist helps bring learning to life at All Saints School in Elsmere

A boy reads in a library.

ELSMERE – For many students, reading is a skill that comes rather naturally, but others struggle. A lack of reading acumen threatens to leave students behind in all subjects.

In years past, getting the kind of intensive instruction necessary to overcome that reading deficiency would have meant sending a child to the nearest public school district. But a new initiative aims to make that possible at All Saints Catholic School in Elsmere.

All Saints has partnered with a Wilmington nonprofit to help ensure that all of its students are able to read at grade level by third grade and that the older children get the assistance they need. It has become the first Catholic school to enter this sort of partnership with the organization, Reading Assist.

Three certified reading interventionists will be at All Saints, where each of them will spend 45 minutes per day with six children. They will meet for the entire school year. Two of the volunteers will work with the lower grades, while the other will be in the upper grades.

“This is a very intensive intervention, something, to be honest, that is really only offered at elite, specialized schools that work with students who need structured literacy or need particular intervention to help them read,” said Caroline O’Neal, executive director of Reading Assist.

According to O’Neal, 5 to 10 percent of children struggle to learn to read, and those are the ones with whom Reading Assist will work. That is to be expected, All Saints principal Mary Elizabeth Muir said.

“Children don’t all learn to walk on the same day. You stand them up and strengthen their leg muscles. And you stand them up and stand them up until that day when they take a step, and then they take five or 10. It’s the same thing with reading,” Muir said.

“We want to strengthen their reading muscles, if you will, until they’re ready to take off.”

Third grade is important as a benchmark for reading at grade level because that is when students switch from “learning to read to reading to learn. It is a big transition year,” she added.

Along those same lines, O’Neal said, “reading is the vehicle to knowledge. It is the foundational skill by which you access all other learning. If you are struggling to read, it’s hard to be engaged in science or history, and so we want to make sure that students have that foundational skill before third grade.”

All Saints has made use of Reading Assist in the past, but a student might have worked with a different volunteer a few times a week, lacking consistency that helps with continued progress. O’Neal said Reading Assist changed its approach, partnering with AmeriCorps to train interventionists who would be in the same schools and with the same students day after day.

The reading interventionists will be AmeriCorps volunteers. AmeriCorps helps with outreach and funding, and Reading Assist handles training and placement. The volunteers need to do 1,700 hours of service.

Reading Assist works with the Colonial School District and two charter schools in Delaware. This is the third year the organization has had this type of partnership with schools, although All Saints is the first Catholic school.

The program will benefit All Saints as well as the students involved by giving them one more tool to retain children who otherwise might have to transfer out, Muir said. Historically, she continued, Catholic schools have been known as teaching to the middle or to students who learn easily.

“Often what happens when you have a child who’s struggling to read, we have to say to them, ‘We’re sorry, we can’t help you. We have to send you to public school.’ We now have the resource. I think that it’s that piece that says we want to educate all of God’s children,” she said.

Muir and other school staff spent time over the summer identifying students who met the criteria to be included in the program, and she said at least one family committed to All Saints because of it. She and O’Neal said the benefits will be felt by the entire student body, not just individuals.

“When that one kid who’s not been engaged all of sudden lights up and is turned on and is ready to learn, it has a huge impact on everybody else in that room.,” O’Neal said.