Reading Department Chair (from left) Jerry Succes, Literacy Lab Coordinator Kandy O’Connor and Associate Principal for Instruction and Literacy Kiwana Brown stand at one of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the Literacy Lab at Evanston Township High School. Brown designed the lab, which was privately funded, to welcome all students in an atmosphere of study and respect. Credit: Larry Gavin

The atmosphere of the Literacy Lab at Evanston Township High School is one of quiet respect for learning.

Designed by Kiwana Brown, associate principal for instruction and literacy, and modeled after the literacy lab at Northeastern Illinois University, the ETHS lab offers one-on-one instruction to students in an atmosphere reminiscent of a college study room.

A place for students to read

Brown said she had noticed a “big need” for students to have some specialized support in literacy. The need was especially apparent for those who would not necessarily qualify for special services, such as having a 504 plan or an individualized education plan but scoring too high on tests to be enrolled in intervention courses.

“They are typically students who could fall through the cracks,” Brown said. Such students might require additional support, but “we didn’t have anything in the building that could support them.” 

Students struggling with reading join the lab by invitation, said Jerry Succes, director of academic supports for curriculum and instruction. The students graduate from the ETHS Literacy Lab when their skills reach grade level. But they can come back any time, he said, and many do.

So far this year, the lab has offered one-on-one intervention to about 60 students, said Succes, who is also chair of the reading department.

A place to train reading specialists

Although Brown designed the lab with particular students in mind, she said, “All students have access to the Literacy Lab. We are an inclusive area of support for any student who needs and desires it.”

Succes added, “Students come in and work independently during their free period or lunch time to relax or work independently on their reading or assignments.”

Succes (left), who also directs the Literacy Lab, with Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis in a reading niche at the Lit Lab. Credit: Larry Gavin

The lab was built by private funds from three donors and the ETHS Foundation. It also serves as a place for Northeastern Illinois University students in reading instruction to complete their practicum at ETHS. 

All instructors in the lab are either reading specialists or working toward that type of degree, said Succes. “In order to be a reading specialist, a teacher has to complete additional reading courses. For example, many English teachers who are supporting students in the lab have a master’s in English as well as a master’s in reading,” he added. At present, there are 14 Interventionists in the Lit Lab itself, one full-time, building-wide Reading Interventionist and several other Interventionists who teach either English and or Reading, Succes said.

Brown said she wanted to make it possible for teachers to support students not only in the Lit Lab, “but also in the classroom, so that we can have capacity in our entire building to support students and literacy.” 

Students at all levels, from AP to intervention classes, need support, Brown said. “So just to be able to create a wraparound support for our entire building for all of our kids was what we wanted to do with [Northeastern].”

In the past few years, Brown said, more than 25 people have been certified through the ETHS/NEIU partnership to be reading interventionists – either reading teachers or certified reading specialists. Currently, 11 teachers in the program are working toward becoming a reading interventionist or reading specialist. ETHS teachers also provide instruction in the Lit Lab.

A day in the Lit Lab

Any staffer in the building who notices that a student may need some additional literacy support can refer a student to the Lit Lab.

“Through that process, we look at the referral, we look at the things that the teacher has done in the class, or the things that the student may need, according to the person who referred them,” Brown said. “We look at their STAR reading assessment scores, and we look at some other identifiers to decide if there’s really a literacy need or if it’s another need.”

English teacher Mara Neill (left) simulates one-on-one instruction with Kristina Madlangbayan, assistant to the director of academic supports, acting as a student stand-in. Credit: Larry Gavin

She said that a student who is not completing assignments but has good literary skills would not be a good fit for the lab.

Those who need literacy support meet with Literacy Lab Coordinator Kandy O’Connor, who brings each student into the lab to meet the staff and get the feel of the place. 

“It is a gentle introduction,” said O’Connor. She asks if they would like to join, and the majority say yes.

“The kids come with their brilliance, and we work with that,” said O’Connor. That “brilliance” may be a particular knowledge or passion – sports, for example, or the outdoors. 

Each student signs an agreement with O’Connor and an interventionist to come in at a set time every week for support.

“We need them to have the buy-in, because that’s when we really see the results,” said Brown. 

After a diagnostic assessment, the interventionist creates an instructional plan tailored to the student’s needs. Some students stay for only six weeks; others remain for a year or more, Succes said. 

‘The magic of story’

Reading is more complex than just decoding. “It’s decoding, it’s fluency, it’s vocabulary. It’s many different things,” said Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. 

The Lit Lab team determines the specific aspect of a student’s reading that needs support.

“We hear too often, ‘This kid can’t read.’ But a student who can decode can read,” Brown said. “So we really want people to think about that when they use that phrase. [Every] single student has a strength, and so we use that strength to support their need areas.”

Staff build on the students’ reading skills by showing them books about their interests. Because they are already interested in the topic, the reading becomes less of a struggle; eagerness to learn replaces anxiety.

O’Connor added, “The words are lifted off the page, and you’re thinking about it in a different way. You’re there. The text is speaking to you.”

This print-rich Lit Lab, said Bavis, is where students learn “the magic of story.” 

‘Graduated’ but not gone

Students are reassessed after six weeks of intervention to see where they are and how much improvement and progress have been made. “If they are not at or close to grade level, then they continue to receive support until it is determined they can stop receiving services,” Succes said.

Lit Lab staff members continue to keep track of students even after they “graduate” to grade-level classes by checking the students’ test scores and other assessments, he said.

“In addition, we always keep in touch with the teachers to see how the students are doing and if there’s anything else we can do. [Students] are always welcomed back,” he said. 

Staff members repeatedly emphasized the Lit Lab’s purpose of bringing students to grade level so they can participate in the full school curriculum. But they are also happy that many students keep in touch.

Students drop in even after they graduate, Succes said. Some come to do work. Others come for support with college applications.

“I think that’s so touching,” he said. “It tells the story that [the lab] gave the student hope to continue.”

Brown agreed: “That’s the best part, I think, for us. It’s just knowing that we have these kids who never thought they would be able to go to college – just didn’t think it was possible, because they didn’t necessarily have all the skills – to now be thriving in college.”

Editor’s note: This story has updated to remove incorrect information from a source concerning hours and funding.

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  1. What an encouraging story! Thank you for researching and writing it. It’s good to know of another resource available to students who have some difficulty reading.