“I don’t know if you know," starts Donna Boltz, the Director of Operations and Advancement at Reading Quest "that 7 out of 10 kids in Santa Fe Public Schools don’t read proficiently at grade level.”
Boltz shares this sobering statistic not to cast a shadow on the city, but to shine a light on the monumental demand for reading tutors. Reading Quest is a nonprofit that provides free and affordable tutoring for kids. It was born out of “Hooked On Books,” a citywide literacy campaign started by Santa Fe middle school students, and the summer program “Reading Is Magic.”
Founder and Executive Director Rayna Dineen, draws on 35 years in education. Her experience ranges from teaching students in preschool to grade 12, founding and consulting for EL Education programs, and working with children with special needs. Her passion for literacy is readily apparent.
Rayna Dineen is firm in her belief that all kids can be successful at reading.
“There’s a ton of scientific research that proves — has proven — that the best way to teach reading is to integrate phonics as a major part of what you teach,” says Dineen “A lot of people nowadays call it ‘structured literacy’. . . alongside great literature and reading aloud and building up kids’ vocabulary. We try to do all of that in our program." She notes that in her 35 years of experience, "I have found that it works like magic!”
Part and parcel of Reading Quest’s success is their creative teaching approach, which includes games, songs, play acting, and American Sign Language. “We’ve created our own original board game and other reading games,” Dineen continues. “We have our own kinesthetic — very interactive — movement games, like ‘reading baseball’ and ‘musical word chairs.’”
Boltz adds, “Some of our kids say, ‘It’s so fun, I don’t even realize I’m learning!’”
Of course, teaching reading is not always fun and games. As a skill that is not instinctively learned, it comes with unique challenges.
“You need a lot of training to actually teach a kid how to read,” Dineen explains. “Especially children who learn differently. . . or kids who speak another language as their first language. . . It definitely makes a huge difference if the tutor or teacher has a lot of training.”
In addition, Dineen estimates that “a large percentage of our kids either have identified or undiagnosed learning differences.” Tutors like Eli Feliciano and Avery Armstrong quickly credit their success to the exemplary training they’ve received.
Armstrong offers, “[Rayna] has a real talent for pulling in people who are passionate about this and who are really good at their jobs. All of the tutors and co-workers that I’ve encountered truly, obviously care about this. . . she has a sixth sense for finding people who’d be right for this.”
Feliciano concurs, adding, “We only offer good tutoring. We’re not trying to offer lots of tutoring. We’re trying to offer the best tutoring possible, and then slowly build that up, so the process of picking tutors. . . we need people who are totally on-board with us.”
This top-down training model arms tutors with the ability to raise their students’ reading proficiency levels, but also to instill a growth mindset. Social skills, emotional skills, teamwork, confidence. . . these are all residual, yet essential effects of the Reading Quest program.
Essential to the process is undoing old messaging.
“A lot of kids have been given the message from different adults in their life that maybe they’re not able, or they’re not smart because they’re slower at learning how to read," says Dineen. "But, we know that, just like Einstein, it might take you longer to learn how to do something, but it has nothing to do with your level of intelligence.”
Feliciano agrees. “What they learn if they can’t read, is that they hate school, because pretty much everything in school requires you to read. So once they get the tool of reading — then all of their classwork becomes a lot easier and they no longer think that they are just a bad student, but they’re actually just — they’re a smart kid who now has the tool to pursue whatever academic subject they like. And it, obviously, affects confidence a great deal.”
“Kids are literally transformed."
Dineen continues, "Parents and teachers will tell us, ‘My child is a different child now. They believe in themselves. They love reading. They’re confident. They speak up in class’.”
Of course, if you want the clearest proof of Reading Quest’s successes, look no further than 5th-grader Braulio Chavez, the program’s ambassador. Dineen can’t help but smile when stating, “He started with us in 2nd grade and wasn’t reading at all, and is now reading Harry Potter and is one of our spokespeople.”
Despite Reading Quest’s remarkable achievements — their students’ reading abilities on average increase a whole grade level per every two weeks of camp sessions attended — they still rely on donations and partnerships to operate.
With over 260 students seen weekly, and an additional twenty per summer camp session of “Reading Is Magic," the teachers and tutors of Reading Quest have their hands full.“
Most reading programs cost thousands of dollars," points out Dineen. "It’s very expensive, and we’re just trying to share everything we have learned from all of the different programs." Free and affordable reading assistance takes commitment. “We have a lot of different, great partners, Meow Wolf being number one.”