Winning students overcome obstacles to excel in reading

Every school day, more than 7,000 teenagers drop out of high school in the U.S., many of them because they can’t read. For these students, the cycle of failure that comes with struggling to read has prevented them from ever experiencing success in school. But one group of kids has proven that it is never too late to break the cycle. Today, Scholastic recognizes 12 students in grades 3-12 who have overcome enormous obstacles —academic, emotional, social, and physical — to become thriving, successful readers. With the help of their incredible teachers, these students have learned to read, are staying in school and are on paths toward success in college, in careers and in everyday life.

The nine winners of the READ 180® All-Star Awards and the three winners of the System 44® All-Star Awards were announced today by Scholastic. The awards program was created to honor students nationwide who have become powerful readers despite formidable odds.

Though they hail from different parts of the country and range in age and background, the recipients of these awards share similar stories with other struggling readers: poor reading skills resulting in low self-esteem, low achievement levels and the risk of becoming dropouts. Some of this year’s All-Stars struggled with language hurdles, physical or learning disabilities and poverty. Despite the obstacles, these students have done something remarkable — turning their lives around, learning to read, raising their grades and rejuvenating their sense of self worth and confidence.

The 2011 READ 180 All-Star Award winners:

Elementary School

Alina Kirk

• Age: 12 — Grade: 4 — Pace, FL
• Alina came to the U.S. understanding no English. She lacked focus and discipline in class. Now, she channels her energy into her school assignments and reading.

Adopted from Russia when she was six years old, Alina Kirk didn’t know a word of English when she came to the U.S. Her teacher described her as a “wild child” in class, having had no formal school background before going to Pea Ridge Elementary. On top of that, she has a physical disability that makes life that much more difficult. READ 180 brought out her competitive side and showed she is eager to beat her own personal bests and tackle more challenging material. Alina has since graduated out of READ 180, and she and her teachers say it transformed her from an undisciplined student to a studious and confident learner. "I don't know of another child who has had her circumstances, and yet, she will never have a frown on her face," her teacher, Ms. Parker, said.

Ja'Shawn Mitchell

• Age: 13 — Grade: 5 — New Iberia, LA
• Ja'Shawn’s autism once held him back from becoming a better reader. Now he is on the honor roll.

Born with autism, Ja'Shawn Mitchell always struggled with school work, especially with reading. To help him catch up before middle school, his teachers placed him in READ 180. Ja'Shawn showed immediate progress, in part because of the visual representations of material that READ 180 provides, which help students with autism. He is now on the honor roll and on track to be reading at grade level by the end of the year. "I truly believe that READ 180 is what has been the key to Ja'Shawn's success,” his nominating teacher wrote. “He has more confidence. He is raising his hand to answer questions in class. This is something he never did before READ 180."

Roberto Zuniga-Silva

• Age: 8 — Grade: 3 — Ft. Benning, GA
• Once reluctant to participate in class, Roberto now has more self-esteem and confidence in his ability to succeed. He enjoys reading aloud at school and is a group leader in his homeroom.

For as long as he can remember, Roberto Zuniga-Silva had trouble with reading and writing. To boost his scores, Roberto’s teachers enrolled him in READ 180. Not long after starting the program, Roberto began to make incredible progress. His report card now displays an ‘E’ because he exceeds expectations in ALL subjects, and he has become one of the more vocal students in class — eager to answer questions and taking on the role of group leader in his homeroom. "At the beginning, reading was very hard for me because I couldn’t read the words that well. Now that I have spent just about a year in the READ 180 class, I can read out loud and not be shy about it."

Middle School

Vanessa Castillo

• Age: 13 — Grade: 7 — Washington D.C.
• Once dismissive of her school responsibilities, Vanessa now takes her studies seriously and has a strong desire to succeed.

Vanessa Castillo never liked school and instead hung out with peers who were a negative influence. She often showed up late to class and took little interest in her studies. But that all changed when she was placed in READ 180. Vanessa shifted her focus to academics, and a determination to do well surfaced. She has since raised her Lexile score by nearly 200 points, and now has near-perfect attendance. "I thought [READ 180] was going to be boring. But no, it’s really awesome! Now I am more focused on my education…I get to learn new things."

Alyssa Jackson

• Age: 13 — Grade: 8 — Houston, TX
• Alyssa refused to let bipolar disorder stop her from becoming a successful reader and top student.

When Alyssa Jackson enrolled in Jan H. Aragon Middle School, her reading and writing skills were weak, and she feared she would never catch up to her classmates. Her lack of success in school and inability to articulate her thoughts were compounded by a life-long struggle with bipolar disorder. School administrators decided to enroll her in READ 180, hopeful that its non-traditional classroom would be a good fit. They were right. Not only did Alyssa manage to pass last year’s state reading exam, but her high score earned her special recognition. Today, Alyssa is a happy and self-motivated student who loves to read "thick chapter books." She is currently writing a book about growing up with bipolar disorder, which she hopes will serve as an inspiration to other students struggling with the disease.

Sean Peart

• Age: 14 — Grade: 8 — Newark, NJ
• An immigrant from Jamaica, Sean arrived in the U.S. with a weak academic foundation. Today, he is a self-confident student who knows he has the tools to succeed in life.

When Sean Peart moved to the U.S. from Jamaica in 2007 he had to overcome a huge language barrier due to educational disadvantages he had faced. To bring him up to grade level, his teachers enrolled him in a READ 180 class. With their help, Sean soon began to experience success, which was motivating. He loves the challenge of reading difficult titles and has read more than 30 books since he started in READ 180. READ 180 has helped me meet all my goals that I thought were impossible to make in a year. READ 180 really has changed my school experience forever."

High School

Brandon Morgan

• Age: 16 — Grade: 10 — Altoona, PA
• Once an introverted student who was disrespectful to teachers, Brandon is now a conscientious young man and a skilled writer.

Before enrolling in READ 180, Brandon Morgan was a reluctant reader who lacked self-confidence and didn’t care about his education. He was disrespectful to teachers and even admitted to “acting immature” in school. After just six months in READ 180, he started sitting up straighter in class, took an active interest in his studies, and has even started talking about attending college. Brandon credits READ 180 with helping him turn his life around. "READ 180 has made an impact on me both academically and personally. I feel like new doors are open to me."

Mark Montez

• Age: 18 — Grade: 12 — Austin, TX
• Mark used to fear his classmates would discover his secret — that he couldn’t read. Today, he is a thriving reader with his sights set on college.

Three years ago, Mark Montez could not read. His ninth grade instructors were stunned when they discovered his secret and worried that once Mark graduated from high school he would not be able to take care of himself. Three years of intensive reading intervention, including a life-changing experience in READ 180 turned his life around. He is now excited about his future and plans to enroll in community college in the Fall to pursue a degree in graphic design. "I have worked with Mark in the Reading class for three years," one of his teachers wrote. "I have witnessed him grow from a confused and defiant boy with very little confidence to a determined and confident young man who knows what he wants and has the tools to achieve his goals."

Jiewen Wu

• Age: 18 — Grade: 10 — Galloway, OH
• Classmates used to taunt him because he couldn't speak English. Now, Jiewen is a dedicated reader and looks forward to joining the Mathletes next year.

As the only Cantonese speaker in a school of 1700 students, Jiewen Wu was understandably timid when it came to public speaking and socializing with other students. He refused to participate in class and often fell asleep in the middle of a lesson. His transformation in READ 180 was incredible. After one successful reading test, Jiewen began to speak, and his confidence level spiked. After just five months in READ 180, Jiewen has blossomed into a new student — one who is sure of himself and eager to learn. "His other teachers are stunned by the transformation, as am I," wrote his teacher, Dr. Blubaugh. "He is truly a different person, and I attribute this to his success in READ 180."

The 2011 System 44 All-Star Award winners are:

Heather Hoffmeister

• Age: 22 — Grade: 12 — Phoenix, AZ
• Spina bifida made learning hard for Heather, but her will to succeed helped her become an All-Star student and outstanding reader.

Born with Spina bifida and Attention Deficit Disorder, Heather Hoffmeister has always had to work much harder than other students. She feared coursework and doubted her ability to succeed in the classroom, believing she just wasn’t cut out for academics. After just one semester in System 44, Heather made incredible gains and began to realize her potential. She now tackles her work with gusto, and teachers describe her as a “motivating influence” who loves to read and approaches each day with enthusiasm and confidence. "My experience in System 44 has been one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me..I went from reading picture books to reading chapter books."

Jesse Lopez

• Age: 12 — Grade: 5 — Midland, TX
• Jesse's truancy and lack of motivation threatened to derail his academic prospects entirely. Now, he is a star student with a flawless attendance record.

Before enrolling in System 44, Jesse Lopez could barely read and was considered “at risk.” He had major attendance issues, which led to academic problems and his being retained twice — once in kindergarten and again in third grade. Today, he is a completely different student who comes to class on time every day, and shows up confident and smiling. Best of all, he is now reading on grade level, having achieved a growth of 5.7 years in just six months! "When I was in the third grade, people laughed at me because I didn’t know how to read. Now I am in the fifth grade, and I am happy because I am reading at my grade level."

Eric Martin

• Age: 13 — Grade: 8 — West Covina, CA
• Once ready to give up on school because of his consistently poor grades, now Eric is a "leader among his peers."

Reading aloud in class was always one of Eric Martin's greatest fears, and expressing ideas was difficult because he didn’t have a large vocabulary. "I felt alone and had no courage to talk to my classmates. I had no goals in life because I thought if you cannot read, you cannot get a job. How would you read and complete a job application?" With the help of System 44, Eric has made tremendous progress, going from a discouraged and struggling reader to a serious student who can now write complex essays. He no longer has to "fake" reading, and instead can enjoy the same books as his classmates.

The READ 180 and System 44 All-Stars will each receive a $1,200 check from Scholastic to be used towards furthering their education, and the winning students’ nominating teachers will each receive $1,000 worth of Scholastic READ 180 and System 44 books and materials for their classrooms.