Foundation grant funds growth of Elon reading program

An international organization this summer awarded Elon University more than $200,000 for assistant professor Jean Rattigan-Rohr to grow her local reading program by partnering with universities in North Carolina and Oregon.

Assistant professor Jean Rattigan-Rohr

The grant from the Switzerland-based Oak Foundation broadens a program created two years ago by Rattigan-Rohr in her “Teaching Struggling Readers” course in the School of Education. The expanded project is titled “It Takes a Village: A Collaborative Assault on the Struggling Reader’s Dilemma.”

“We’re going to help children become better readers as we’ve always done,” said Rattigan-Rohr, “but now we have partners with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and at Concordia University in Portland.”

An estimated 280 children and their families in both states will benefit from the reading program during the two years it is funded by the Oak Foundation. The grant totals $200,720 and begins in early 2011.

Faculty members at Elon, UNCG and Concordia plan to do additional research and make their findings public at education conferences and in research journals.

“This is a great opportunity for our universities to collaborate on a meaningful project to help kids in our area who really need this assistance,” said Samuel Miller, chair of the Department of Teacher Education and Higher Education at UNCG.

Future educators enrolled in Rattigan-Rohr’s class partner with elementary school children as part of their curriculum. Last fall, they traveled once a week to the May Memorial Library in downtown Burlington for help strengthening the elementary school students’ reading abilities.

The course provides teacher candidates a chance to test theories taught in their own classrooms, and it gives them time to work with parents, including some who don’t speak English. At Elon, Alamance County public library system tracked the number of new library cards requested by families taking part in the project, as well as how many books were borrowed from the various branches by children tutored in the program.

Together, the teacher candidates, professors and interpreters diagnose reading challenges and help the children overcome those hurdles, while showing parents what to do at home during the week. At the end of the program last fall, children met their Elon tutors at the Barnes & Noble in Alamance Crossing to choose books of their own to take home at no expense to families.

Rattigan-Rohr credited Bonnie Bruno, director of sponsored programs at Elon University, for her help securing the funding through the grant application process. More important, she said, is the effect on families that benefit from the program and the college students’ involvement in their lives.

“You can feel the gratitude in the e-mails from parents,” Rattigan-Rohr said. “It makes you feel good, and it makes you want to reach more kids. We’ll keep at it as long as we must. Without reading skills, our kids will continue to struggle, and it’s such a good thing for all pre-service teachers to see what they must do and what they can do when they put their minds to it to help students struggling in school.

Lynn Keyne-Michaels, a professor of education at Concordia University and coordinator of Concordia’s Teacher Corps, said her university would use grant money to develop a course for freshmen education majors, and provide tutoring to youth, along with free books. The class design will closely resemble the curriculum developed by Rattigan-Rohr at Elon.

“Concordia is honored to be a partner in this effort,” Keyne-Michaels said. “There is a great opportunity for more universities to imitate these efforts nationwide.”

“Our students benefit because of a program in North Carolina that is being shared, and in Oregon I’m hoping that the biggest winners from all this will be the children at our neighbor schools who will become great readers.”