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Reading skills made fun through Mebane program

By Jeanna Baxter White

Word Master Media Group for The Mebane Foundaiton

“I’m not finished making a difference in the lives of kids,” says Kerry Blackwelder, who retired from Davie County Schools in July after 29 years of teaching.

She’s now eager to begin her second career as a Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP) tutor for the Mebane Foundation.

“I am excited to be tutoring to continue to share my love of phonics and literacy with students. I’ve spent the majority of my teaching career teaching literacy and it’s my passion. I love watching my striving students become confident readers.”

HillRAP is a research-based, individual approach to teaching the five essential components of reading developed by the Hill Center of Durham. During HillRAP, a strained teacher guides groups of four students through exercises in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Each student has a curriculum to provide individual instruction where needed most.

Teachers and schools must schedule the time to implement the program, limiting the number of students able to participate.

During the spring of 2019, the foundation began piloting a unique tutoring program utilizing a retired teacher to provide HillRAP to students who don’t receive the literacy intervention during the school day.

“Our number one goal is to help children succeed in reading,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation. “Secondly, we are trying to assist the Hill Center by testing a tutoring model that makes the Hill methodology accessible to a lot more families and students.

“The normal cost is $50 per hour per student which isn’t attainable for many of the families who need the program. By using a retired teacher who is at the top of her game when it comes to Hill, we are piloting and subsidizing a program that provides this valuable methodology for only $40 a week per student for three hours of tutoring. It’s been rewarding that we had available space in our office since early literacy is our mission. This program is a win for the child and a win for the retired teacher who is able to increase their income in retirement.”

Based on the program’s success, Colbourne decided it was time to add a second tutor to increase the number of students receiving this assistance.

Blackwelder, who had been a reading specialist at Cooleemee Elementary School for the past 23 years and is a certified HillRAP instructor and HillRAP mentor, was the perfect fit.

Twice named the school’s teacher of the year, her energy and creative methods for engaging her students are legendary. It wasn’t unusual to find her standing on the table and animatedly reading or telling a story, anything to maintain her students’ attention.

Passionate about her profession, she also taught HillRAP to third graders from all over the county each summer during  Read to Achieve Camp.

Now she is eager to pour that same heart and enthusiasm into tutoring, especially during this uncertain time in education.

“I want to help provide additional instruction using HillRAP to maintain crucial literacy skills needed to become a successful reader during this pandemic.”

She believes HillRAP’s systematic approach to phonics is valuable for ALL students and listed some of its beneficial attributes.

• It’s grounded in the science of reading and the core components of literacy instruction.

• Students learn units of sound, sound patterns, syllable rules, and how to apply this knowledge to decode words.

• It includes individual drill questions, phonological awareness skills, word lists, and decodable texts.

• It provides ongoing formative assessments and immediate feedback that enable a teacher and student to track progress on a daily basis.

Amy Spade is thrilled that her daughter Kaylee has this opportunity to receive HillRAP tutoring. A reading specialist with HillRAP certification herself, she understands well the difference the program can make in a child’ life, but knows that children often listen better to a teacher who is not also their parent.

“We are beyond grateful to have the opportunity to have the additional support for Kaylee with Mrs. Blackwelder through the Mebane Foundation,” said Spade.

“We are extremely thankful to have our children in the school building two days a week and virtual instruction for the other three days.  However, we knew Kaylee would need additional support in the foundational skills of reading.

“As soon as I saw Mrs. Blackwelder’s post that she would be providing tutoring utilizing the HillRAP program I emailed her to request a spot for Kaylee. Knowing that Kerry not only has a wealth of understanding about how students learn to read but also has a passion and excitement for reading, that is exactly what Kaylee needs to continue to grow as a reader and have an excitement for reading, we knew we wanted to secure a spot with her as soon as possible.

“Kaylee loves going to ‘reading practice’ three times a week and we are already seeing a positive difference in her confidence,” Spade said.

Blackwelder hopes that many more families will recognize the value of HillRAP for their children and will take advantage of this opportunity the Mebane Foundation is offering.

“If you are interested in providing your child with a multisensory, individual plan that focuses on the science of reading, please contact me,  I would love to share my love of literacy and HillRAP with your child.”

Blackwelder is seeking students for HillRAP groups that will meet on Tuesdays through Thursdays. She has slots available from 3-3:50 p.m., 4-4:50 p.m., 5-5:50 p.m., and 6-6:50 p.m. She can be contacted at kerryblackwelder@gmail.com.

Luwonna Oakes, the program’s initial tutor, is also accepting students. She has openings in her 2 p.m and 3 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday groups.

She is starting a new group on Wednesday/Thursday (2 days a week) 11-12 to tutor Hill RAP students in third grade needing extra reading support on days they aren’t in public school. She will need four students to sign-up in order for this group to begin.

She will have additional spaces available in January and encourages anyone who would like to be put on the waiting list to contact her. She can be reached at Luwonnaoakes@gmail.com.

For a more detailed story on the HillRAP program, visit HillRAP: Direct, individualized literacy instruction to help struggling students succeed.