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Brighter Futures with The Reading Center

by Chelsea Cliff
May 5, 2017

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When it comes to reading, the right education can make a huge difference. For over 65 years The Reading Center has been providing dyslexic students the tools they need and this has had a huge impact on our community. Dyslexia is more than just flipping letters, or poor spelling, it is a bio-neurological weakness in how the brain processes written communication. It involves an impairment of the sound/symbol relationship and a weaker visual memory.

Cindy Russell, Executive Director of The Reading Center, has been involved with the organization since 2003, when she was the parent of a student. Eventually, she became a board member and was named Executive Director in 2010.

“I couldn’t believe this place existed,” Cindy describes of discovering The Reading Center. Her oldest son was her first child enrolled at The Reading Center, and that is what initially drew her in, to learn more about dyslexia, and how to approach it. 

“What we do is rare but scientifically proven. We in Rochester, are lucky enough to live nearby or even know of The Reading Center. We have recently begun to expand our online tutoring program, which is significant because there are not a lot of people that know how to teach this,” she describes of the organization’s methodology and what they offer not only to students, but also prospective tutors.

Students enrolled at The Reading Center have 1 on 1 tutoring sessions, twice a week, for at least a year. How long a student will need to be tutored depends on a few factors: their age (when they first got help), the severity of their dyslexia, and acceptance of the learning disability. Schools typically do not offer teaching solutions that work for students with dyslexia, whether it is diagnosed or not.  But their teaching approach is not kept a secret. 

The Reading Center works with both students and tutors, and delivers the scientifically proven approach of Orton-Gillingham, teaching dyslexic students a different way to learn. Orton-Gillingham is named after Samuel Torrey Orton, a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist at Columbia University and Anna Gillingham, an educator and psychologist at Teachers College, Columbia University. Both doctors worked together in the 1930’s to develop the system that is used to teach dyslexic students. The method is specifically tailored to the obstacles that a dyslexic student often has trouble with, when learning how to read.

The Orton-Gillingham approach outlines the learning process as:

  • Sequential, every sound in English language is taught, it is repeated until it becomes automatic for the student.
  • Multi-Sensory, the student needs to see it, say it, read it, hear it, and write it.
  • Prescriptive, the lessons are individualized, there is not set curriculum for each session, as student needs will differ.
  • Diagnostic, the tutor takes notes and keeps a detailed list of what was taught, areas that need more work are thoroughly noted. Positive feedback is encouraged.

“The Reading Center is for anyone that needs help. It could be adults, grandparents that want to be able to read to their grandchildren, medical students, or teachers,” Cindy states on who it is that the organization works with. Some of these individuals may decide later on that they want to become a tutor through The Reading Center’s training program, which is especially helpful for teachers. The basic level of training to become a tutor is a 3 week course from 8 am to 5 pm and the training has recently been added online.

Students can also be tutored online, the platform used is WebEx and both the student and tutor can write, speak, and see each other through this application.

This opens up a huge opportunity to serve more students and to train more tutors. The Reading Center is one of two accredited programs west of the Mississippi. “This is a needed resource, it’s rare, and it’s effective,” Cindy explained of why The Reading Center is so vital to our community. In fact, our students and trainees come from 46 counties in MN over the last 5 years, and 9 different states.  There is a need and a demand.

One of her biggest accomplishments as the Executive Director is helping to begin the Reading Champions program. This program is a collaboration between the Rochester Public Library, the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester, the Adult Detention Center, and the Hawthorne Learning Center. This program began two years ago and it pairs up a fully Orton-Gillingham trained volunteer tutor with an underserved, at-risk youth, that needs help with their reading skills. There is no money exchanged and the Reading Center trains the tutors for this program, for free.

When you look at the statistics, you will find that 70% of incarcerated individuals cannot read above a 4th grade level, and 85% of all juveniles who interact with the court system are functionally illiterate. Additionally, 43% of Americans with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty and 70% are unemployed or underemployed.

The average cost of a session is $50 an hour, and students need 1 on 1 tutoring at least twice a week. In larger cities the cost can be anywhere from $65-$100 an hour. The Reading Center does offer scholarships to about 20% of it’s students but even with that option, there are still students unable to get the help they need. “When a parent is working 2 or more jobs it’s difficult to find transportation to get a child to an appointment,” Cindy described. In the Reading Champions program, the volunteer tutor goes to the student, eliminating that obstacle.

Traits often seen in dyslexic individuals are poor spelling, difficulty with written language, decoding and encoding of words, and reversals of letters in younger students. ADHD accompanies dyslexia in about 25 - 40% of cases, and dyslexia often runs in families. Fortunately, as The Reading Center illustrates, there is an educational solution.

“Seeing a student’s self-confidence bloom is really an inspiring thing to see. They have been beating themselves up, thought something was wrong with them. To know that the only difference is in the way they learn changes their lives.”

All three of Cindy’s own children attended The Reading Center, at various ages. Her oldest son began receiving help in the 7th grade and it was harder, to begin the tutoring process later. “When he saw his younger brother struggling in the same way, it made him more accepting of his own challenges and he’s now enrolled in college,” Cindy described. Her younger son received tutoring in the first grade, and he’s now in 11th grade and an honor student. Her daughter’s case of dyslexia was mild, but in first grade she had trouble holding on to high frequency words, so she also began the 1 on 1 tutoring at a young age and now she loves to read, for fun.

This last February, The Reading Center received the 2017 Non-Profit of the Year Award from the Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

“This was the first time we were awarded this and it was great to have the Reading Center recognized. We have been inviting students here for 65 years, we have tested and tutored over 9,000 students and trained over 2,000 people to become tutors.”

The Reading Center has plans to expand their capacity, as they are in the second year of a 3-year plan for a transition to move to a larger facility. This expansion would include a 12,000 square foot building and it would fit all of the programs.

“Currently we are in a 3,000 square foot building and not all of our programs even take place here, due to limited space. We serve 46 counties in Minnesota, providing resources to both students and tutors, plus online services.”

There are two events throughout the year that benefit The Reading Center, the Bright Stars event, a gala in the fall, that features a well know speaker than has Dyslexia and the Dyslexia Dash, a super hero themed 5k in October. Additionally, the Annual Campaign: Bright Futures is an ongoing effort for fundraising, of the money raised half goes to scholarships and other other half to program support.

Sterling State Bank is glad to contribute to this organization, through employee volunteer efforts, sponsorship, and board involvement. Danny Bucknell is the VP of Rochester Regional Branch Services for Sterling State Bank and he has been on the board of The Reading Center since 2014. If you are interested in becoming a tutor or learning more about what The Reading Center does please visit www.thereadingcenter.org.

If you are interested in contributing to the 2017 Bright Futures Campaign, please donate here.