Haliburton Highlands Secondary School is introducing a new program for bringing students up to speed in their reading.

The school has started a new course called “Read Up” this year as part of a schoolwide initiative to improve reading. The program tailors material to students who are reading at lower grade levels and are identified as needing more one-on-one support.

Head of English Rebeka Borgdorff said it is unfair to expect students to meet a certain bar if they have not been equipped to do that.

“As teachers, we’re not here to just fill a bucket with knowledge. We’re here to see students actually engage and be as successful,” Borgdorff said. “It just really prompted us, burdened us to change what we’re doing in order to meet our students, to engage and meet them where they’re at.

“As soon as we do that, it’s a gamechanger.”

Borgdorff said the school is responding to trends it sees with student reading. The school has trended downward more steeply in Grade 10 literacy test results compared to the board and province, with a 60 per cent success rate in 2017-18, 24 per cent less than five years ago.

She said although students have fared well in writing, reading has proven more of an issue. Societal trends toward technology are part of the reason, Borgdorff said.

“We like texting and short forms and emojis and such and we’re losing a lot of the quality of our language.”

Over the past two years, the school’s English department has also implemented a program called LLI, Levelled Literacy Intervention. Originally in elementary schools, the program sees some English courses have students reading from different texts, tailored toward individual reading levels.

“Although it was suitable for measuring the gaps and suitable for understanding the levels of our students, the content itself was rather uncomfortable for our students, in the sense it felt juvenile,” Borgdorff said.

The school has sought more materials to help improve both the LLI and the new Read Up course, with the Rotary Club of Haliburton answering the call. The group donated $4,000 to support the literacy initiatives Sept. 17.

Member Andrew Hodgson said the group was happy to work with HHSS to help students.

“If you’ve got that little bit more confidence, little bit more self-esteem, that takes us all a long, long, long way,” Hodgson said.

It is too early to know how well the Read Up course will work, Borgdorff said. But if it succeeds, she said it might be a concept employed in other grades and schools in the years to come.

She described seeing her 11 students in the course read a passage aloud to the class at their reading level.

“These were students who would generally completely say, ‘I am not doing an oral presentation ever’,” Borgdorff said. “It nearly brought tears in my eyes. It was beautiful. “Just that ability to feel like, ‘I can do this.’ That’s the goal of this whole course.”

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