Dec 07, 2012

Mentors Spark East Austin School’s Reading Success

University of Texas early childhood education student Damoniece Lowe plays a reading game with Metz Elementary School second-grader Dominic Gonzalez as part of the school’s HOSTS mentoring program. Photo by Kathleen Silvia Leon.

By Kathleen Silvia Leon
For Reporting Texas

Half-steady fingertips roll a red die the size of a second-grader’s hand. The die bounces to a halt on a white laminated game board. A solid black dot allows the boy to advance one step closer to the finish line. He picks up a smaller die, moves the piece to the appropriate space and begins sounding out the words within the square.

He stammers, gets some help with a three-syllable word, then finishes strongly.

“What is your favorite day of the week?” second-grader Dominic Gonzalez recites.

So begins the “Get To Know You” game, the initial interaction between mentor and student in a reading improvement program at Metz Elementary School in the Austin Independent School District. Gonzalez reads at a first-grade level.

Help One Student To Succeed, or HOSTS, started at the East Austin school in 2002. Educators credit the program with helping students who began reading from one to three years behind their grade level get up to speed. Metz even claimed exemplary status from the Texas Education Agency in 2010, largely due to the HOSTS program, HOSTS teacher Melanie Perez said.

HOSTS was conceived in 1977 by Bill Gibbons, a teacher turned school administrator in Portland, Ore., who filtered research into the power of one-on-one learning through his own experience as a struggling student to create a program that relies on mentors to lead students to success. At Metz, the majority of mentors are student volunteers from the University of Texas at Austin.

“Our students put them on a pedestal,” Perez said.

Twice weekly, mentors and students meet for 30-minute sessions and engage in activities tailored to appeal to the child while boosting reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary. One-on-one support from the idolized mentors increases the students’ self-confidence and, thus, their ability to perform well.

“The kids know that [the UT mentors] are important people. They’re doing important things. They’re in college,” Perez said. “We tell [our students], ‘That’s where you need to go. You’re going to go to UT. That’s what we expect.’”

The number of students enrolled in HOSTS has grown from 60 to 140 students per day, and the program receives $100,000 in funding from the City of Austin. The money covers funding for one teacher and one teacher’s assistant and the supplies needed for the program, including games and books.

“It has grown to be a vital piece in the interventions that our students receive for reading,”  she added about the program, which she said “provides an additional reading intervention that no other school provides.”

HOSTS is free for all Metz students, 92 percent of whom are Latino. In addition, 95 percent of the students live below the poverty level, a factor that can lead to poor reading skills.

HOSTS also tries to give students a sense of security that otherwise might be lacking.

“Home is not a sanctuary, but school can be,” Perez said.

At a small rectangular table in the library, surrounded by an array of different colored dust covers protecting the works of hundreds of authors, sit two strangers — one as eager to learn as the other is to teach.

With a mild tint of red peeking through his normally sandy-colored cheeks, Dominic’s eyes shift up and then right as his head simultaneously tilts to the left.  The left side of his mouth stretches in a straight line toward his earlobe, and his eyes drop as if to meet in the same place. As he ponders his response, UT early childhood education major Damoniece Lowe breaks the ice.

“I’ll go first,” she says.  “My favorite day of the week is Friday, because that’s the day I get to come here and see you!”

A smile, laying any uncertainty to rest, lights up Dominic’s face. His eyes come back up and give “Niecey,” as he now calls Lowe, a reassuring glance.

“I really like Mondays,” he said, “because I get to come to school. And I get to do math work. Math is my favorite subject!”

Lowe, who has been with HOSTS for three semesters, has had the opportunity not only to equip herself with skills required in the teaching profession, but also to play a major role in getting her students up to their proper reading level.

Attesting to the power of HOSTS, Lowe recounts her journey with one child in particular. “I had one student who was able to move up an entire reading level by the time we were finished, which is really what this is all about.”

“I mentor because I know that this is a program that makes a difference in a child’s life,” Lowe said. “If they get this passion for reading earlier on in their education, they are more likely to succeed later on in their academic career.”