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Mother works to raise entire district’s scores

April 16, 2009
Christine Rupp — Staff Writer

GRANADA - Low reading scores prompted one Granada-Huntley-East Chain parent to take action. As this year's round of testing begins, she's hoping all her work has paid off.

When the scores from last year's Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests came in and Shelly Wendel saw that GHEC's third-graders' reading skills were at 41.7 percent proficiency compared to the state average of 81.4 percent, she was alarmed. That's especially because she realized three of her four daughters were themselves failing in reading.

So Wendel spent most of last summer researching ways she could help, developing a program and planning fund-raisers.

"Coming into it I had no knowledge whatsoever," Wendel said.

She ran everything by principal Bob Grant. The end product was the After School Homework Helper Project.

It's a reward-and-incentive program that encourages students to read with monthly reading contests, and it's voluntary.

Each student who participates gets a letter of encouragement and positive reinforcement from Wendel, and the student who reads the most pages each month gets a prize. One month it was a movie package, and another month it was a bowling package. In the time leading up to Christmas, the monthly prizes were cash.

There also have been two team effort challenges. In November Wendel challenged the students to read 160 pages each. With 86 students in the elementary grades, that was a total of 13,760 pages. The students read more than 17,000. Their reward was to watch Grant and elementary administrative designee Rick Uttech kiss a pig.

She led another team effort challenge in February. This time students were asked to read more than 17,000 pages in order to earn an ice skating party. They ended up reading more than 33,000.

"They really wanted to go ice skating."

Junior high students who wished to participate were asked to read 200 pages each, and those who succeeded also got an ice skating party.

Progress has been measured not only in the number of pages read but also in the quality of the one-page book reports required to count the pages. Wendel said many of the reports, which ask for basic information such as characters and plot, started out being one sentence long. Now students are writing whole paragraphs.

She made the reports a requirement for students to submit pages because the area where they struggled the most was in reading comprehension.

She's hoping progress also will show up in this year's MCA scores. Testing begins today and continues Friday.

"I'm hoping, I'm crossing my fingers."

The After School Homework Helper Project might seem like a big endeavor for one parent, but Wendel said she had a stake in the outcome.

She has six children: her oldest son, who's in the workforce; a daughter, who's a senior in high school; daughters in grades 9, 7 and 4; and a son in kindergarten.

With three of her daughters flunking their reading tests, Wendel had already planned on helping them read more and improve their comprehension.

"I'm going to do it anyways," she said. "Let's just do the whole school."

She had reduced her hours from full time to part time when she pulled her oldest son, who was struggling in school, out to homeschool him, so she had enough time to form and run the program.

The progress the project has inspired is obvious in Wendel's own home. Her daughter in the fourth grade was probably her biggest inspiration for starting the project. She struggled more than her other children when it came to reading. After a year of focusing on reading after school, she's doing better, although she still has a ways to go.

Her seventh-grader, who also had failing test scores in reading, recently brought home an A in language arts after struggling all through elementary school.

Both girls used to hate to read, but Wendel laughed and said now she can't keep them supplied with enough books.

Before she started homeschooling her son, Wendel said she was probably like a lot of parents who worked full time. She assumed it was the teacher's job to teach.

"But, in all reality, it's an integrated process."

Students learn the basics in the classroom, but they build on those basics outside of it.

"(Learning) doesn't just stop as soon as you walk out of the classroom," she said. "You continue to learn all of the time."

With the success of the After School Homework Helper Project, Wendel is looking at ways to expand the project for next year.

She would like to see more reading enrichment in the classroom, and she wants to add science, math and economics to students' afterschool education.

She's also looking into a reading ladder, where a student would pick a topic and read progressively more in-depth books on that subject.

For example, if a boy is interested in baseball, he could start out by reading a children's book, which would give him a basic understanding of the topic. Then, he could read a young adult book and focus his interest. Finally, he would read an adult book - possibly with help from his parents - and become an "expert" on that topic.

Wendel also hopes to increase family involvement by implementing a family game night that would focus on games involving science, math or ecnomics.



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