Academy helps kids get back on track

Education is built on the bedrock of the three R's-reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. A weak foundation in any of these three areas imperils the structural integrity of any building rising from it.This is clearly the rationale behind the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which mandates that all students attain grade-level proficiency in reading and math by 2014, with testing done every year in the third thru eighth grade, etc., to insure the flow of federal funding wherever applicable. Anyway, NCLB has been deemed ambitious by some, impractical by others. But the mandate by NCLB was not the main impetus that led to the establishment over two years ago of the Gallatin Learning Center. Its reason was more elemental: teachers saw some students needed some remediation in their reading and math skills. Ergo, it was time for some sort of intervention program. If it takes extra effort to do this, the effort will be made. An effort was made, too, not to mention the "r" word, to avoid any stigma often attached to the word. Thus the academy's title. According to its coordinator, fourth grade teacher Julie Bliss, the academy in its first year began with six classes, each with 15 students, representing the third, fourth and fifth grades (for a total of 90 students). Last year, it added two more classes, with second-graders thrown into the mix (for a total of 120 students served). This year, the math program was dropped and the decision to concentrate more on the reading program allowed the federal stimulus money (the funding source) to be spread around from 15 to 18 students per class, and allowing first graders to take advantage of the program. The academy's roster this year thus includes: a class of 18 in Grade l; a class of 18 in Grade 2; a class of 18 in Grade 3; 3 classes of 18 each in Grade 4 (54 total); and 2 classes of 18 (36 total) in Grade 5-for a grand total of 144 students in the academy. The 45-minute program (three times a week) is a before and after school program, with most students opting for the earlier time slot (8-8:45 a.m.) over the 3:15- 4:00 p.m. slot because of transportation, convenience, etc., factors. Except for those in Grade l (who are first taught phonetic awareness), instruction is based on a popular text, "STARS: Strategy to Achieve Reading Success." It covers such themes as reading strategy, building reading comprehension, etc. Important to the program's effectiveness is the contribution by the volunteer-teachers who, Bliss says, are already familiar with the kids and with whom the parents feel comfortable: "The parents can drop off their kids who get reading help from trusted and credentialed teachers. These are great teachers who are willing to give up their own time to help these kids." "Doing an outstanding job coordinating the program," to quote DUSD asst. superintendent/instructional services Dr. Jerilyn King-Brown, is academy coordinator Julie Eidinger Bliss, a longtime Downey resident who got her master's in educational leadership from CSU-Long Beach last June. She has taught fourth grade a total of 12 years, eight at Old River School, four so far at Gallatin. She was a substitute teacher for five years before this. Bliss says her principal, Dr. Rani Maline-Bertsch, "has been supremely supportive of the program. It has been her particular focus this year." Armed originally with a bachelor's in business administration, major in human resources, from Cal Poly, Bliss started out on a career as a human resources manager at a savings and loan company. When son Matt was born two years later, she quit her job. Daughter Lauren came four years later. When Matt was in kindergarten, she started volunteering at his school. By this time, she began wondering if teaching as a career might not be such a bad idea. She was a volunteer for five years. When Lauren was in kindergarten, Bliss went back to school and started substitute teaching at the district. It was when Lauren reached fourth grade at Old River School that Bliss got her teaching credential from CSU-Long Beach and began teaching fourth grade at the school in earnest. Bliss' love for teaching since the switch is total. "I'd teach for nothing because I love to be with kids," she says. Husband Steve is plant superintendent for an air conditioning firm in L.A. Matt, fresh out of CSU-Fullerton with a mechanical engineering degree, has found employment with Raytheon. Lauren is in her third year at CSU-Long Beach working on her school psychology degree while she volunteers as a second grade ASPIRE mentor at Gauldin. Of the academy's impact, Bliss says: "The parents like it. They have somewhere to go where someone can help their kids. We teachers at Gallatin like it. We've observed a noticeable improvement in our students' reading skills. If nothing else, if we can help them gain confidence in themselves in their reading, the program can be regarded as a success." She adds: "I'd like to empower them, make them feel they can do it themselves. I'd like them to take responsibility for their own learning."

********** Published: February 12, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 43