Sharing the Gift of Reading

An EWU program helps school kids advance their literacy skills.


Reading may be fundamental, but it doesn’t come naturally. Learning to make sense of the written word takes patience, practice and, if you’re lucky, guidance from educators who care.

Since its earliest days, Eastern has trained teachers who love sharing the gift of reading. It still does. These days, the work they do has never been more important — especially for kids at risk of falling behind.

Education professionals have long known that a critical part of teacher training involves real-world experience, both in the classroom and one-on-one with students.

EWU student teaches reading
EWU education student Baylie Gibson with Grant Elementary’s Rahel Alemayehu, a fourth grader who reads well above her grade level.

“Capstone” programs are one way for about-to-graduate education students to gain this experience. Now in its sixth year, Eastern’s “literacy capstone” specializes in pairing student teachers with elementary school children looking to advance their reading and comprehension abilities.

The program is coordinated by Ashley Lepisi, a senior lecturer at EWU who specializes in literacy and technology. Over the past several years it has helped boost the literacy skills of more than 400 students attending Spokane’s Grant and Adams elementary schools.

Most recently, 22 EWU students, all seniors readying for their full-time student teaching placements, spent Wednesday afternoons at Grant, where more than 90 percent of the school’s 320 students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. During this winter quarter, Eagle students worked with 68 schoolchildren in grades two through five.

The program is a win-win, says EWU alumnus George Gessler, Grant Elementary’s principal assistant.

EWU’s soon-to-be teachers learn to understand some of the challenges present  in the lives of a diverse population of students, says Gessler ’88, ’89, ’20. Grant’s school children, meanwhile, some of whom have experienced poverty and trauma, benefit from the individual instruction — in literacy as well as in the social and emotional skills they may need to focus on learning.

“They get to have people work with them; young people that are really enthralled with them,” Gessler says. “They get a positive experience, and we get better readers in return. So that’s been huge for us.”

About 90 percent of participating schoolchildren demonstrate a measurable improvement in literacy skills by the end of the quarter, Lepisi adds. EWU’s future educators, in turn, discover what it’s like to teach in schools classified by the U.S. Department of Education as “Title 1, Part A,” where a majority of students come from disadvantaged households.

The experience sometimes changes the trajectory of their careers. “We’ve had a lot of students say, ‘I didn’t think that I had the capacity to serve in a Title 1 building,’” says Lepisi. “Many of them leave saying: ‘This seems a little bit more fulfilling to me — and, actually, I’d rather be in a Title 1 building now.’”