FSPA helps St. Francis at-risk studentsIn the quiet village of Ellsworth, population 3,000, Sister Mary Ellen Huebsch employs innovative techniques to help children get on track in school, through a literacy intervention program.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article originally appeared in the March-May 2008 issue of “Insight,” a La Crosse-based publication, and was submitted by St. Francis School in Ellsworth to be published in the Herald.
In the quiet village of Ellsworth, population 3,000, Sister Mary Ellen Huebsch employs innovative techniques to help children get on track in school, through a literacy intervention program. It’s called phonetic interpretation, also known as word attack skills, and Sister Mary Ellen says it enables children to learn any subject better. Her job: to determine which children are on the road to failure at a very early age, kindergarten through fifth grade, unless there is intervention.
“I believe every child has value and is capable of learning if the opportunity and help is provided,” says Sister Mary Ellen. “Because children learn at different speeds, their readiness does not always occur at the same time. One size does not fit all.”
Teaching is a ministry Sister Mary Ellen has embraced for more than 53 years. For 18 of those years, she’s been tutoring and she has spent the most recent two years at Ellsworth’s St. Francis School, a private Catholic school with 143 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Three days a week, Sister Mary Ellen tutors students for six hours. It’s no small task, but it’s one Sister Mary Ellen believes in.
“As children of God, each child’s self image is important. Success is so important,” she says. “Children who have learning difficulties feel safe and cared for in a smaller group setting.”
Sister Mary Ellen typically teaches students in groups of four or fewer, or individually.
Phonetic interpretation is a tactile, sense-oriented style of learning, involving both mind and body in the learning process. Techniques used can include utilizing sand trays for the creation of letters in the sand, encouraging students to clap for syllables in words, or tap speech sounds with his or her fingers to learn to spell, and sometimes using plastic or magnetic letters instead of having students write words or sentences. Sister Mary Ellen uses the Orton-Gillingham/Lindamood Program, which she prefers for many reasons: it’s multidisciplinary, multi-sensory, it encourages continuous feedback and positive reinforcement, and it’s emotionally sound.
“Students are helped who are most capable of learning, but need another method of presentation other than traditional classroom teaching. I find the majority of these students are very bright!” she says.
The most rewarding part of tutoring, says Sister Mary Ellen, happens when children grow and are capable of learning the skills that will take them throughout their lifetime.
“Their future education and employment depends on their ability to read and learn. Their smiles indicate their newfound confidence. I hope that this will lessen the dropout rate among these at-risk students and help these young children realize that their own children may someday need such support.”
In Sister Mary Ellen’s mind, this type of tutoring holds promise for many students, especially those attending inner city schools, or areas that lack educational opportunities and are examining programs such as this. “School systems need to carefully and regularly determine which students must have tutoring help if they are to stay in school-with success-and not become part of the drop-out statistics,” she explains. “I feel this ministry is one that will be a benefit to these young people, as it will make a difference for their entire lives.”