While the North Shore takes pride in its excellent public schools, it is sometimes easy to forget that neighboring districts face challenges that seem impossible to surmount. At Waukegan Public School District, 69.7 percent of children are low-income, one-third are English language learners, and a quarter of the student population is chronically absent.
But women like Diane E. Winter, Chief Judge 19th Judicial Circuit Court, actively work to move the needle on these statistics. For five years, she has served as a tutor for Reading Success, an early literacy program developed by the United Way of Lake County.
She is one of fourteen Lake County Judges who participate in the program, and it is through the efforts of these generous volunteers (68 in total) that Reading Success—which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year—has effectively changed the lives of local children.
Judges are charged with giving back to the community and modeling for students how to be good citizens,” says Judge Winter. “Even though we only read for a half hour each week with the students, we see so much improvement from the beginning of the year when they can barely recognize sight words to the end of the year when they are reading confidently and really enjoying the stories. It’s very gratifying for all of us.”
“I have always believed being able to read well allows a person to take control of their life and be a self-reliant, informed citizen,” adds Judge Luis A. Berrones, 19th Judicial Circuit Court. “Not being able to read or not being able to read well deprives a person from being truly independent.)
Reading Success targets first through third grade students testing in the 20th to 40th percentile in their class for reading and comprehension. Research shows that most students who are not proficient readers by fourth grade will continue to remain behind throughout their educational career. United Way brings trained volunteer reading tutors into Waukegan Public Schools weekly to tutor students, giving them individualized help to develop reading skills and improve performance.
The most recent Reading Success results demonstrate that first grade students in the program improved 33 percent more than their non-tutored peers at the same reading level. According to Jennifer Chang, North Elementary first grade teacher, “My students who participate in the Reading Success program always make substantial growth from fall to spring. Not only does their reading get better, but they thrive from the extra attention, which boosts their self-confidence.”
To date, Reading Success has helped more than 1,200 at-risk Waukegan students with low literacy skills get on track to become proficient readers.
In 2019, the United Way expanded the initiative by creating Early Reading Success: Kindergarten (ERSK). The sister program exposes kindergarten students to the basics of reading through trained volunteers, who read to small groups and then engage the participants in a short activity related to what they have just read. For the 2019-2020 school year, ERSK is available at four schools in Waukegan.
“This initiative is a critical platform for early. school success,” says Kristi Long, President and CEO of United Way of Lake County. “We applaud and appreciate each volunteer involved. Their magnitude of commitment and tenacity to contribute to our literacy programs demonstrate that the momentum for this initiative will continue to grow.”
“Children come to kindergarten with varying levels of development, so small group instruction and support is very helpful to their learning,” adds Jean Dames, an Early Reading Success volunteer. “These programs engage the children and also help them use what they are learning in the classroom in a new way with a different teacher.”
Sue Baehr, Reading Success Program Manager, extends an invitation to anyone interested in improving the lives of our community’s children. “We encourage anyone who loves to read and loves children to join us in helping kids be on a path to success in school and life.