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Empower Reading team at SickKids brings their program to Cree Nation communities
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Empower Reading team at SickKids brings their program to Cree Nation communities


The Empower Reading team began working with the Cree School Board in the Cree Nation of James Bay, Quebec in January 2015. Originally a pilot project in two schools in one community, Empower has expanded to eight remote communities in the region.

The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) program Empower Reading was in focus at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Toronto last month.

The SickKids team began working with the Cree School Board in the Cree Nation of James Bay, Quebec in January 2015. Originally a pilot project in two schools in one community, Empower Reading has expanded to eight remote communities in the region, with 139 students enrolled in the program.

Léa Lacerenza, Head of Special Education for the Learning Disabilities Research Program and for Empower Reading at SickKids, and Catherine Rutherford, Cree School Board Special Services Coordinator, presented at the conference on their shared experiences and success bringing Empower Reading to the Cree Nation communities.  

“What we saw at the conference this week was a sharing of inspirations and visions for Indigenous people around the world - to preserve their cultures, yes, but also to move forward, especially in education,” says Lacerenza. “This is where Empower Reading comes in.”

Empower Reading is designed to work with children with learning disabilities who are struggling to read, and to help them with their shared core deficits in reading, spelling, and comprehension. The program is in over 700 schools across Canada, a few in the United States, and as of last year, in India as the first program to launch outside of North America. The Cree School Board, having seen the program in action, approached SickKids for help.

Says founder and Program Director Dr. Maureen Lovett: “I have a real interest in global literacy and in reaching out to help children who might not otherwise achieve literacy and all the opportunities that come with that. It is exciting to see Empower Reading implemented in the Cree School Board.”

Seven to 15 per cent of children in any given school could be falling behind not only in reading, but in other school subjects because of their difficulty with reading. In the case of the Cree School Board, there was a huge gap, sometimes of several grade levels.

“At the start of the pilot, several children were almost non-readers, with very poor decoding skills,” says Lacerenza.

“Some of the high school kids were reading at a kindergarten level,” adds Rutherford.

Hannah Moses is a teacher in Waskaganish, Quebec, east of James Bay. A teacher with over 30 years of experience, she has taught Empower Reading for the last three years. She has seen her students come up three or four grade levels as they work through the program content. She says, “After my first year, I thought to myself, ‘More kids need this program.’”

Students in the program make up about five to seven per cent of the school population. Moses teaches in groups of six to eight students, spending 50 to 60 minutes together daily working their way through one of the 110 lessons that make up the program. She teaches two groups a year, to a maximum of 16 students. The small group dynamic is greatly beneficial to their learning, even more than one-on-one instruction.

In her community, Moses sees the challenges facing students. “Technology is a big problem, getting kids away from their electronics. Alcohol and drugs are prevalent,” she says. “But I’ve seen my students increase their reading levels dramatically, and enjoy school because they can read. They don’t misbehave as much, as they are engaged, and even get involved in sports.”

The program lives up to its name, empowering students in their learning. “The program also asks them what they want to be able to read and learn – we want students invested in their own learning, so we ask ‘What’s in it for you?’” says Lacerenza. “It’s a measuring stick on what’s going on inside them. ‘I want to read to my baby sister,’ a student might say.”

Moses has seen an impact in how her students approach learning now. “When they come to a word they don't know in other subjects, they use the strategies they have learned in Empower Reading to figure it out,” she says.

The teachings form strong life lessons as well, says Lacerenza. “The program teaches resilience in all areas of life. It teaches strategies, not just content. They start to approach all problems in a strategic way. If one way doesn’t work, they know that they can use another way.”

And it has boosted their confidence. “We see an improved confidence level in these children,” says Lacerenza. “We see students starting to feel better about themselves from the first lesson. These students start to volunteer to read in class, they want to go to school, they aren’t crying over homework. They are reading at home and they are asking parents to buy them books.”

The students’ excitement for reading has become contagious, as parents become engaged in their children’s education. The Cree School Board is looking into offering an Empower Reading course for adults to meet these needs.

Collaboration and inclusion is important to the program. The Cree teachers are supporting the program by adding more relevant and relatable vocabulary that speak to their culture and environment, such as around hunting and trapping; picture support for new vocabulary; and Cree translation of some of the strategy names. As well, a Cree School Board educator with Mohawk roots is writing some stories to include in a new program that SickKids is currently developing.  

The experience with the Cree School Board has helped teachers grow too, developing an even greater understanding of the essential skills involved in teaching reading.

It also has helped the creators of the program. Says Lacerenza: “This experience has taught us how to overcome big challenges we may not face in a big city, such as transport (some communities can only be accessed by small plane); how to function without the Internet (when all that is available is a landline); how to approach gaps in education (such as an eight-year gap in high school); and how to work with teachers from different parts of the world with different skill sets.”

Since 2006, Empower Reading has trained 2,200 teachers and over 31,000 children and youth have participated in the program. They are looking to expand into China, and also to create a version of the program in Braille.

“We help many children, but to help some of the neediest children and youth in our country, it has been a passion of ours to do that,” says Karen Steinbach, Program Coordinator, Learning Disabilities Research Program, SickKids.

“These students would have potentially been our dropouts,” says Rutherford. “But these students now come back from Empower and some of them are the highest readers in the class.”

Learn more about Empower Reading.

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