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When an elementary school teacher with 40 years of service calls a brand new school program “the highlight of her career,” it’s time to sit up and listen.

That’s what veteran teacher Mary Kay Pfadenhauer said earlier this year about a new literacy initiative at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, a 120-year-old residential school in rural Vermont that serves children who are victims of poverty, homelessness, abuse, tragedy or neglect.

Pfadenhauer is passionate about teaching kids to read.  Since 1974, she has been teaching the youngest children at Kurn Hattin—the first and second grade combined class. “I love to see the joy of reading on their faces,” she says “the look in their eyes when the lights go on.”

When Pfadenhauer talks about the new literacy initiative begun at the school this year, it’s her own eyes that light up. What’s special about the program is that the curriculum is designed for older children in grades 4-8 who are in need of intensive literacy instruction. The class of 14 students meets every afternoon with class sessions alternating between phonics and word recognition work and computer-assisted vocabulary study, which allows students to focus on a topic of their own interest.
According to Pfadenhauer, there can be a variety of circumstances in students’ lives that may have created roadblocks to reading in the earlier grades. A lack of continuity caused by multiple moves, school transfers, and absences, as well as emotional trauma, and stress are some of the factors that can contribute to a child having challenges at school, and in particular with learning literacy skills. “Because of these circumstances in their lives, these young people haven’t had the stability at school, nor the opportunity to be taught.”

Pfadenhauer speaks ardently about the detrimental effects of recent research on early literacy. “The studies say that children who don’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are basically destined to fail—that it’s too late for kids who aren’t reading by that age. But it’s just not true. Of course 6th, 7th, and 8th graders can learn to read; they just need a chance to be taught. We’re doing it. This is a model for not giving up on kids.”

The statistics related to literacy in America are alarming. Over 60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate. 85% of juveniles interfacing with the criminal justice system are also functionally illiterate. 43% of adults with no or low literacy skills live in poverty. These figures are among the factors that prompt school officials to label a child “at-risk”, meaning they may be “at-risk” of academic failure, of dropping out of school, of living in poverty—in short, “at-risk” of a not-so-bright future.

The new literacy initiative reflects Kurn Hattin's credo that every child should have the chance at a bright future. Pfadenhauer and the rest of the faculty work hard to ensure that whatever they do has the end goal of removing the “risks” and breaking the cycles of failure, poverty, neglect, and abuse.  “Totally transforming these kids’ lives is the mission,” Pfadenhauer says, “The greatest foundation we can give them, the greatest tool to help them succeed, is the gift of literacy.”

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