PTO Mission: Get struggling readers books they can read!
A mother’s story about her daughter’s reading struggles and a vision to support all learners with reading difficulties
I have a courageous daughter, her name is Ireland. She is very much your typical 5th grader. She hangs out with nice friends, loves to roller skate and is passionate about learning. She cares about her little sister and helps her dad and I around the house. She’s a joy to be around and, like most parents, my husband and I would do anything to help her achieve her goals.
Lately, I’ve seen Ireland bring home a backpack full of books from her school library, but she doesn’t read them. Week after week they stay in her backpack or on a kitchen shelf and on Friday’s she returns them to the library. Finally, I asked her, “Why do you bring these books home, if you aren’t going to read them?” She replied, “Because I don’t want to be different from my friends and check out picture books from our school library. It’s easier that way mom, so I don’t have to explain why I cannot read the classics or a good mystery novel.” Yes, my daughter is a typical 5th grader in every way, except that she reads at a first grade level. She doesn’t let on that she’s having problems reading, but I know that she does and have decided to do something about it!
I have been a member of my local PTO for 6 years. Over the years we have raised lots of money for our local schools to support many kinds of initiatives from book fairs to school spirit wear. Last year, I decided to stand up and be an advocate for children, like my daughter, who are struggling readers. My mission was to find books that would be of high interest and address the different learning styles of struggling readers. These books need to be written in multiple formats like paperback, audio & computer versions to meet their needs.
I talked with classroom teachers, the librarian, special education staff and administrators at my school. My initial search led me to purchase some books from a publisher that claimed their books were geared to struggling readers, but that’s not how my daughter viewed them. My high-tech daughter wasn’t thrilled with the low interest topics.
One day, I attended a local SEDOL (Special Education District of Lake County) meeting for parents who had struggling learners. We talked a lot about our kids’ learning styles and needs. I described my search for appropriate reading materials for my daughter. After the meeting, the SEDOL Assistive Technology Coordinator came up and handed me 3 versions of the same book (a paperback, an audio CD and a computer book on CD). She explained it should give my daughter some extra reading supports she may find helpful such as a professional character narrator reading the text and some text formatting that helps struggling readers better comprehend the content’s meaning.
This computer book changed my daughter’s life! The book was from a collection called Start-to-Finish, offered by Don Johnston, Inc. I went online and discovered that Don’s company was right in Illinois, not too far from our home. I also found out that Don was a struggling reader in his childhood, too! It was at that moment that I decided to drop in on Don and talk about presenting these books to our PTO. I thought, “If these books can engage my daughter and change her life, why wouldn’t we want to put them in our school libraries to change the lives of other children who need extra reading support?”
When I arrived at Don’s company very excited about my cause, Don’s staff admitted that they rarely have parent visitors and said they usually work with schools. I explained that the 5 schools in my district did not know about the Start-to-Finish series, and that we didn’t have any books in our libraries that are high interest/low vocabulary to engage struggling readers.
I left Don’s company with some books in hand and a copy of his auto-biography, Building Wings: How I Made it Through School, which Don wrote after many children inspired him to share his real life experience as a struggling reader. Don reached the 8th grade and was still hiding his reading difficulties by acting out in class. This led him to be labeled as a class clown with behavior problems by some of his earlier teachers.
In 8th grade, Don met a teacher named Mrs. Tedesco who challenged Don to read and learn in different ways. Her inspiration led him to become a successful learner and accomplished business man. Today, he is proud of saying that his products have helped thousands of students, like my daughter, become better readers, writers and thinkers. His mantra: “Kids learn in different ways!”
When I returned home, I told my daughter about meeting Don’s staff. I gave her a copy of the Start-to-Finish computer book about “Jane Goodall and her work with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.” Popping that CD book into her computer opened her eyes to a whole new way of reading and her enthusiasm was contagious!
I spent the next few months talking about the Don Johnston book series with educators at the schools and PTO members. Nobody really wants to admit that there are a high percentage of students (over 20%) in their district reading below grade level. It’s sad and frustrating!
With Ireland’s help, we prepared a request to purchase the Don Johnston Start-to-Finish series for all of the school libraries in our district. I took my request to the PTO Board. I brought along the Director of Special Education, my daughter’s tutor, my daughter’s special education teacher, other parents and a hand written letter from my daughter. I asked my PTO Board to approve the purchase of the entire series for each school library. When the Board approved the request, I committed to the PTO that I would deliver and explain the books to all staff members.
Next, I went online to search for grants and visited local businesses in my town. I wanted to add the Core Content books to complement our Start-to-Finish collection. I learned that Allstate Insurance in Northbrook, Illinois provides grants for worthy causes. I stopped by to talk to my agent, Phil Rutledge in Barrington, IL. He and others encouraged me to write a grant, requesting funds for the additional Don Johnston Core Content books. I was thrilled when a portion of the funds were approved. I am now anxiously awaiting the approval of the remaining funds.
Every day, I see the impact these books have had on children in my district. Not only struggling readers, but also gifted readers as well. It allows a 1st grade student reading above grade level the opportunity to read a high interest book with appropriate content. Ireland LOVES the books and shows them around to friends encouraging them to read the books also. She is very proud of my efforts to help other students and families. The books now have a life in our school library and in some classrooms. She said they are getting a lot of attention from students with reading difficulties and those who have a different first language (ESL/ELL kids). You can see letters written to Don from other students at http://www.donjohnston.com/building_wings/StudentLetters.html
A few weeks ago Ireland met Don Johnston and told him what a difference he had made in her life. Ireland asked Don if he knew of any “special” teachers in her school that are like Mrs. Tedesco. In Don’s book, Mrs. Tedesco was the one significant teacher that changed Don’s life and inspired him to read in different ways. My daughter is hoping to meet her own “Mrs. Tedesco” and is on the search.
I am personally grateful for the impact that these books have had on my daughter. I wanted to be part of the solution for the 40% of students in middle and high schools who are struggling in literacy. Here are some ideas for other PTO mothers to raise money to purchase materials like these for your school:
- Ask your local PTO/PTA to fund this important literacy program
- Request funds from businesses who have a vested interest in your local school district
- Identify parents of struggling readers to support your efforts.
- Include special education teachers, reading specialists, librarians, administration – anyone from your school who can provide additional support for your efforts.
- Talk with local organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs
- Consider timing for budget item presentation
- Research all grant opportunities (the internet/library are great resources)
- Offer to launch the materials for maximum exposure (bring muffins and juice for the staff – everyone loves food)!