The Village approach

What started eight years ago as a program for struggling young readers has evolved into a comprehensive literacy development project.

<p>Melvin Marin has been a part of the &quot;It Takes a Village&quot; program for five years.</p>
Melvin Marin was in second grade when his mother, Luz Maria Avelino, enrolled him in the “It Takes a Village” project at Elon University. A bright but shy young boy, Melvin was struggling with reading, and Avelino wasn’t sure what to do. Then a letter about a free program at Elon that helps struggling readers arrived with Melvin’s older brother, Milton Marin, who was in fourth grade at the time. Milton was doing just fine in that area, but still his mother took that opportunity to enlist both boys in the program. “I figured he could always improve,” she says of Milton.

Five years later, the brothers are still active in the Village project and the results couldn’t be better. Thanks to the encouragement he received in the program, Milton was tested and identified as Academically and Intellectually Gifted; he is attending Alamance-Burlington Middle College in the fall. Melvin, who is now in eighth grade, scored a Level 5 in his latest standardized reading test, the highest score a student can achieve. He lights up when you ask him about his reading skills. “I read much better than others in my class,” he says with pride. “I’m more fluid and read at a good pace—not too fast, not too slow.” 

Results such as these are not uncommon for those who take part in the Village project. They are also what inspire project founder and director Jean Rattigan-Rohr to continue improving the program she started in 2008. The Village project is now a multi-faceted literacy development project focused on community needs. “It has just been fantastic,” Rattigan-Rohr says. She also serves as Elon’s executive director of community partnerships, director of the Center for Access and Success and associate professor of education. “The title is ‘It Takes a Village’ and that’s exactly what we are seeing unfolding here: the whole Elon village embracing the project and really working hard with children and the community.”

Starting the Village

The idea for the program was born of a recurrent question Rattigan-Rohr kept hearing in her “Teaching Struggling Readers” class, which she teaches to preservice teachers in Elon’s School of Education: How do you teach reading when children are struggling and don’t seem to get it? To find the answer, and in addition to teaching her students the theoretical underpinnings of reading, Rattigan-Rohr decided to pair them with area school children who were struggling with reading. 

Jean Rattigan-Rohr works with parents as part of the Village project.
The idea was for the Elon students to meet once a week for two hours to teach and get to know the children and find ways to offer one-on-one assistance. They also shared recommendations with parents so they could continue the work at home and, when needed, they visited classroom teachers to ensure there was consistency across the board.

Kara Cowdrick ’10, who took part in the program the fall of her senior year, remembers how daunting it all seemed at first. She was paired with a fourth grader whose first language was Spanish. “I really went in kind of blind,” she says, adding she didn’t know how well she could relate to the parents. “It was intimidating at first. I went in with a plan and I quickly learned to be flexible and adjust my plan based on what he needed.”

Cowdrick soon developed a relationship with the boy and his family and started to see the improvements not only in his reading but also his confidence. That’s when she discovered that besides offering a practical way to bring book knowledge into a real-world setting, the program got to the essence of effective teaching. “What I learned the most from my time with the Village is that education is more than helping students learn to read or write,” says Cowdrick, who teaches fifth grade in a low-income school in Atlanta. “It’s about bringing a community together, because it takes a whole community to support children.”  

There is much evidence that shows early literacy is linked with later scholastic achievement, higher graduation rates, reduced incidences of juvenile delinquency and overall well-being. Most experts agree children begin to develop pre-reading skills when they are 4-5 years old. Students who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade, rarely catch up with their peers academically. “Helping children learn to read is the single most important factor in their early education,” Elon President Leo M. Lambert says. “Our society must not fail to address this most basic issue, because the preservation of a democratic society and our future prosperity as a nation both depend on every child having a chance to flourish.”

Rattigan-Rohr says there is not one single approach that can be applied to all children who are struggling with reading, adding that, in order to be successful, one needs to look at each child who is struggling and find out why that child, at that moment, has problems reading. For Melvin, his reading difficulties seemed to be related to fluency. “It was as if he was out of breath, as if he didn’t know how to breathe while reading,” Avelino recalls. The tutor who first worked with him discovered he liked soccer, so she tied a soccer ball to his waist and had him bounce the ball on his knee while he was sounding out words. The distraction seemed to allow Melvin to focus on the words without disturbing his breathing. Avelino says every tutor who has worked with her children has actively tried new things to keep them engaged and motivated.

While tutors play an integral role, the program wouldn’t be complete without parental involvement. “From the beginning, they told us we had to work with our children and practice what we had learned at home,” Avelino says, adding that being involved in the process has been important for her as well because it has allowed her to see her children’s progress every step of the way. In fact, her experience has been so positive, she has become an ambassador for the program in the Latino community. She has referred many families and even brings them to the tutoring sessions when needed. 

Rattigan-Rohr knew from the start that participation from parents was key in order for the program to succeed. She takes issue with people who say children are struggling because their parents don’t care. “When parents see their children succeeding, they’ll do all they can to ensure that they do succeed, and this is a message that I’ve been trying to tell folks all along,” Rattigan-Rohr says. 

Growing the Village

At first the tutoring sessions took place on Elon’s campus and were only available to 16 elementary school children. The program soon outgrew the space and moved to May Memorial Library in downtown Burlington, N.C. As it expanded to include K-8 students, the program moved again, this time to a space that had once been occupied by a private elementary school. Then in February, the program began providing after-school tutoring services to K-12 students at five local schools: Newlin, Haw River, Eastlawn and Andrews elementary schools, as well as Graham Middle School, which serves as a one-stop shop for parents with multiple children in the program. 

This latest expansion into the schools is being funded by a $1 million grant from Oak Foundation. The philanthropic organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, has supported the project’s early development and the replication of the Village model nationally at three other U.S. colleges (the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Winston-Salem State University and Concordia University in Oregon) and internationally at the East Queen Street Baptist Church Evening Institute in Kingston, Jamaica. Rattigan-Rohr says the funding will allow Elon to deepen and broaden the services the Village already provides to approximately 200 children and their families in Alamance County. “We have aggressive goals to increase reading proficiency for children and expand parents’ understanding of ways to support their children’s academic development and also increase their own English language skills,” she adds.

Over the years, the project has gradually added learning opportunities as needs arose. Programs such as Science in the Village, which provides hands-on opportunities to help students be problem-solvers in a scientific and technological world; Music in the Village, where students learn the basics of music by using their voice and learning to play an instrument; and Summer in the Village, which provides struggling readers with activities aimed at strengthening their writing and creative expression. The latter has been made possible by a gift from the Wells Fargo Foundation. The project also addresses academic enhancements for K-9 students who are already part of the Village project and are now performing above grade level, as well as early childhood literacy for children ages 3 to 5. The project has also worked with Alamance Community College and Elon’s Centro de Español to support Village parents and families who wish to improve their English language skills. 

As the number of students and families served and course offerings has increased, the university involvement has also widened. At first, education majors accounted for the bulk of volunteers. Now faculty, staff and students from different majors are working with the project throughout the year. 

Jenn Grimmett, media services assistant with Elon’s Teaching and Learning Technologies, started tutoring in spring 2015 and later got involved with the technology component of the Summer in the Village program. She assembled a team with her TLT co-workers and used Elon’s Maker Hub to conduct exploratory activities to teach students how electric circuits work while also explaining the forces behind it. “It was a very rewarding experience,” she says, particularly when she saw the transformation in students who gained confidence in their knowledge and used it to help others. Partnering with the project also provided Grimmett and her co-workers with an “out-of-the-box opportunity to contribute to the bigger picture.” 

“Folks who might have been hesitant at first, who felt out of their comfort zone, were rewarded when they saw the look on the kids’ faces,” she says. This summer Grimmett worked with about 20 faculty and staff from different departments across campus to teach the students how to create their own newscast using green screen technology. “It’s a cool way to really take great advantage of all the massive talent we have on campus and be able to integrate the lessons from the first grade up,” she says. 

Raghu Tadepalli, dean of the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business, taught an entrepreneurship and sales class as part of this summer’s program. He characterizes the Village project as “unique.” In his experience, he says, most private universities prefer to leave it to the state to deal with issues facing K-12 education. “Recognizing that as a private university, we have a social responsibility with the community,” he says, “and that it is up to us, being a nationally known university, to do whatever we can to serve the needs of the people around us, is remarkable.”

Patrick Rudd, coordinator of library instruction and outreach services, first started volunteering with the Village project in fall 2012, after a personal loss made him reexamine his priorities. Since then, and with the support of Dean and University Librarian Joan Ruelle, he has recruited other library staff into the program. “I didn’t know how to teach reading but I do love to read and I know how to build relationships,” Rudd says. “Getting to know students, what they like, what’s happening at school, it opens all kinds of doors. It’s a very rewarding relationship-building experience.” 

Rudd marvels at how students such as Melvin, with whom he worked in the past, blossom when given the opportunity to grow. “There is an incredible thing that happens when you read with a child,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t know who is teaching who.” Working with the program, he says, has dispelled some of the misconceptions that surround struggling readers. “Parents really care,” Rudd says. “They have created a community and have taken ownership of the program. And that commitment seeps through the larger community and spreads to others.” 

He has worked with students one-on-one and in a group setting and also works with the summer program. As a nonteaching professional, he enjoys getting to know each student to determine their individual needs and, with the help of education students, develop a plan that works. “There are a lot of Melvins out there,” he says. “Smart students who need someone who has the time to interact with them and challenge them and just get to know them.”

The impact of the Village

Beyond impacting hundreds of Alamance County students and their families throughout the years, the Village project has also left a mark on those who have served as volunteers. Mallory Hinzman ’12 is one of them. She first started working with the program as a junior in college and never left. In one way or another, the classroom teacher has been involved in all aspects of the program. As a student teacher, she tutored children one-on-one and in groups. She later served as a group facilitator helping noneducation majors create plans for their students. She has also mentored education majors and participated in the summer program. She currently supervises the Village program at Eastlawn Elementary, where she teaches fourth grade.

Hinzman says the program provides a true solution for a problem that is affecting children across the nation by filling the gaps left by often-overwhelmed school systems. Children, particularly those in poverty, she adds, need individual attention; for them to get those moments of direct instruction is very valuable, both emotionally and academically. “For these students, this is their moment,” she says. “For a lot of them, reading is one of the things they are most self-conscious about. When they learn to do it, they are on the mountaintop. It’s a beautiful experience for them.”

For the tutors, she says, the biggest reward is the knowledge they are making a difference. “The greatest gift you can give to someone is the ability to read,” Hinzman says. She was particularly glad to see students from different disciplines and interests getting involved in the spring—from sorority and fraternity members to student-athletes. “It was truly a village from all areas and interests from Elon that came,” she adds. “It was really exciting.” For parents, Hinzman says, the program is a source of relief and excitement. “I don’t think I’ve seen so much support from parents as I’ve seen in the Village,” she says. “They are there, involved, listening and working with their students on-site and at home. It’s good for them to see where their kids are and what they can do for them.”

Witnessing this comprehensive approach to help readers succeed helped solidify Cowdrick’s path after graduation. She obtained a master’s degree in language literacy and culture and is now pursuing a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. Her research focuses on supporting English language learning and the impact community can have on the process. “I’ve always been interested in the Spanish language but it wasn’t until my experience with the Village that I realized how much language learners and their families needed advocates and other people—teachers and community members—to help them navigate through a new culture,” she says. 

Her Village experience also spurred a community bookmobile project she started last year, which allows her to bring literacy to children in her community during the summer months. “If I didn’t have that experience of the Village, of seeing the impact of bringing the community together, I’d have never had that idea,” she says, adding she credits Rattigan-Rohr for much of her motivation. “When I think about Elon, and some of my most transformative moments, I think of the Village and Dr. Rohr. It takes someone with a lot of determination and a lot of heart to turn that dream into a reality. She is an inspiration for me.”

She is not the only one who has reached that conclusion. “Jean is such a visionary,” Rudd says. “She’s always thinking six months, a year out. She just knows how to put people together. … Elon is good at creating community, and at the heart, that’s what this is: one community reaching out to another to create a dynamic partnership.”  

Rattigan-Rohr shies away from taking any credit for the project’s success and points instead to all the different components that make it all possible. “It makes me feel very encouraged and humbled to see the sheer outpouring of support from the Elon community—staff, faculty, friends, students,” says Rattigan-Rohr. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine when I started the project eight years ago that it would grow by leaps and bounds with such support from the Elon community.”

Looking to the future, Hinzman hopes the Village continues its work in the five local schools and grows in North Carolina and beyond. “I hope that every state can have it, that it becomes a world endeavor,” she says. “It’s so adaptable: all you need is someone who knows how to read to teach someone who is struggling. I hope people learn about it so other kids can experience what I’ve seen the students here experience.”