Sharing the Love of Reading

By Jeanna Baxter White

Mebane Foundation Welcomes Kerry Blackwelder to HillRAP Tutoring Program

Kerry Blackwelder welcomes her first tutoring students, Amber and Jasper Brown.

“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, and is 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, individualized approach to teaching the five essential components of reading developed by the Hill Center of Durham. During HillRAP, a specially-trained teacher guides groups of four students through exercises in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each student has a specialized curriculum to provide individualized instruction where it is needed most. Consequently, teachers and schools must intentionally 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 powerful 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 valuable literacy 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 3rd graders from all over the county each summer during  Read to Achieve Camp.  

Kerry Blackwelder practices word decoding with (L-R) Gunner Connell, Amber Brown, and Kaylee Spade.

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 individualized 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,” she explained.  

Jasper Brown practices reading the story silently before reading it out loud to Kerry Blackwelder.

“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, individualized 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 3rd 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, please visit HillRAP: Direct, individualized literacy instruction to help struggling students succeed.

Different But Not Different

During the spring of 2019, the Mebane Foundation began piloting a unique tutoring program that utilizes a retired teacher to provide the Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP) to students who don’t receive the powerful literacy intervention during the school day.

Luwonna Oakes, Davie HillRAP teacher; Honor Draughn, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Petra Murphy, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Amelia Battle, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Brynlee Logan, a third-grade student at Pinebrook Elementary School

“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.” 

Note: This article by Mike Barnhardt was originally published in the Davie County Enterprise-Record and is republished here with permission.

We’re all different, but not different.

Even as a fourth-grader at Mocksville Elementary, Honor Draughn knows that. And she knows that the message would be great for her peers.

Luwonna Oakes, a tutor at the Mebane Foundation in Mocksville, helped children last spring to write, edit and publish their own books.

“All of the students did a superb job on their books and they were each special,” she said. “I had them decide on a targeted audience they were writing for – their author’s purpose.

A Message With An Impact

Honor Draughn wrote an endearing book about showing kindness to those who are ‘Different, but not Different,’ the title of her book.”

She donated a book to each elementary school guidance counselor in Davie County. And according to at least one of those counselors, the book is working.

“Honor is a young child making a difference in Davie Schools, impacting peers with a book on such a needed topic is so special,” Oakes said.

The book, Honor said, is dedicated to everybody who may feel different.

“Do you know some people are different, but not different? Some people do not get it, but it’s true. People think that some children are different, but inside they are not so different.

Honor Draughn author of Different but not Different a book making a difference for students in Davie County schools

“Take the time to get to know them,” she wrote. “Some people that seem different have been through a lot. Difficult things have happened to some children and other people make fun of them and judge them from the outside because of the way they act.”

The children, she wrote, may have lost a parent. Some parents who make bad choices have children who are confused, upset or angry.

Don’t Judge

“Some people do not give these children a chance to prove what is on the inside, behind the way they act.”

Some of the children may be less fortunate. She urges her peers not to brag about expensive toys or lavish vacations. “I do not want to make them feel like they don’t get to do fun things in life.

“If you see someone that is being judged or if you are being judged, remember, I am unique for who I am. This makes me who I am. You do not have to change to fit in. I want you to remember this, you are you, you are who you are, and do not let anybody stand in your way of you being you.”

She urges her peers to be kind to one another, “even if someone is mean to you.”

Tell an Adult

If hit or kicked, tell an adult. “This is not being a tattletale, but dealing with a problem in the right way.

“Be a good friend. Do not judge people by the way they act. You can be a good influence and be there for others.”

Helping Others Helps Us Too

Helping a child with a problem can help you and the child, she said.

“We all are different. No one is perfect,” she wrote, encouraging peers to look for ways people are like you, not different.

“I want you to remember this. Everybody is different. We all are really different and that’s what makes us unique. It makes me be me and you be you.”

Giving the Gift of Reading through HillRAP

Moving counter-clockwise: Luwonna Oakes, Davie HillRAP teacher; Honor Draughn, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Petra Murphy, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Amelia Battle, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Brynlee Logan, a third-grade student at Pinebrook Elementary School

By Jeanna Baxter White
It’s 3:15 in the afternoon. While most of their friends are finished with school for the day, four third-grade girls are bursting through the door of the Mebane Foundation office in downtown Mocksville to take advantage of an amazing opportunity to boost their literacy skills.

The Mebane Foundation is piloting a unique program that utilizes a retired teacher to provide the Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP) to students who don’t receive the powerful literacy intervention during the school day.

HillRAP is a research-based multisensory structured language approach to teaching reading developed by the Hill Center of Durham. During HillRAP, a specially-trained teacher guides groups of four students through exercises in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each student has a specialized curriculum to provide individualized instruction where it is needed most.

Because HillRAP is so individualized and requires direct instruction, the program cannot be used for a whole group. Teachers and schools must intentionally schedule the time to implement the program, limiting the number of students able to participate.

Amelia Battle, Mocksville Elementary School student practices reading fluency using HillRAP software on an iPad

“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 $25 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. We’d love to replicate the program with more retired teachers trained in HillRAP and help more students.”

“Although we are starting small because we don’t know where this will lead, my hope is that the program becomes so attractive to families and teachers that we have difficulty handling the volume,” he said, adding that he hopes to expand the program this summer to help prevent summer reading loss.

HillRAP small group tutoring sessions allow individualized training as students practice skills that are assigned based on each student’s needs

Colbourne selected Luwonna Oakes to serve as the first tutor. She retired from Davie County schools last spring after 21 years as William R. Davie Elementary School’s reading specialist. Coincidentally, she has been involved with the Mebane Foundation’s work since 2002 when she was selected for a committee to explore K-3 best practices in Davie County Schools. She was among the first to receive Hill Center level one certification and level two mentor training through funding from the Foundation and participated in the pilot program to evaluate the digital version of the HillRAP methodology which was released in 2016.

“I’m thankful that Larry reached out to me because I knew I would need to work part-time when I retired and this is the perfect opportunity,” Oakes said. “I’m also grateful to have been involved with the Mebane Foundation since 2002 when Mr. Mebane was still alive and beginning his involvement in Davie County.” She still proudly displays the plaque she received for being one of those early Mebane Scholars. “The funding he has provided to Davie County schools not only allowed me to have HillRAP training but to go back to the Hill Center for continued professional development.”

Whisper phones allow students to quietly read or practice words so that they can hear themselves but others are not disturbed. Reading out loud helps them to correct their own errors as they hear what they are saying

Oakes was tasked with selecting the first group of four as quickly as possible. She found the first, Brynlee Logan from Pinebrook Elementary, after a chance discussion with her mother at a social gathering. She then turned to Suzie Hecht, reading teacher at Mocksville Elementary, the closest school to the Mebane Foundation office, for help identifying three additional students to finish out the group.

“We started with third-graders because of the pressure on them to meet the North Carolina standards and to pass their first EOGs. It puts a lot of stress on the students and their parents,” Oakes said.”We hope to expand the program to include first and second graders this summer.”

“We wanted to find children who needed additional support in literacy and who would benefit from this specific methodology but weren’t already receiving it at school. Using data from school assessments, the reading teachers identified students who needed a little extra help developing reading fluency (reading rate and expression) and accuracy.”

Hecht sent out 10 letters and the first to respond, Amelia Battle, Honor Draughn, and Petra Murphy were selected to participate.  “Our invited students were very close to meeting goals in various reading assessments, indicating they might show proficiency in third grade by the end of the year. However, they were not there yet,” said Hecht. “These students needed an extra intervention to specifically target their needs. Hill RAP was a great fit – I knew they would be in very capable hands with Luwonna. We were so excited to be on the ground floor of this new initiative. We are very appreciative of all the Mebane Foundation has done to impact literacy in Davie County.”

Family members are thrilled with the generous opportunity the girls are receiving.

“There are students who are doing well but could be doing so much better if they had just a little bit more help,” said Lana Weaver, Amelia’s grandmother, who as a teacher for 42 years quickly recognized the value of this program. “Amelia loves to read and is excited about coming.”

Barbara Everhart, Brynlee’s grandmother, and a former teacher said she was “overjoyed because this is something that will make her feel better about her reading ability.”

“I’m excited about this opportunity,” said Aubrey Draughn, Honor’s mother. “I hope it will give her more confidence in her reading, writing, comprehension, and fluency, and she is excited about it.”

Oakes knows well the value HillRAP can bring to a child’s life. Her first HillRAP students are now seniors in high school and doing well.

“I want all children to have a joy for reading and a love for learning,” she said. “I want to support them crossing the bridge to reading efficiency and experience the fun of reading, where they can visualize, enjoy, and escape through a book. They may never personally visit Africa or the Outback of Australia, but they can go there in a book. It’s the next best thing to being there.”

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