Reading source of joy for Graber
Like many Fairfield High School alumni, Jared Graber has his sights set on going to college.
That goal was not on Jared’s mind in 2010 when he graduated from high school. At that time, Jared was struggling mightily to read. However, things have turned around for the young man in the past three years. Ever since he began taking private reading lessons with Diane Aitchison, Jared has found great joy in the printed word.
When Aitchison began working with Jared in the summer of 2011, he was reading at a first grade level. His mother, Nohema, said he took no pleasure in reading because it was so hard for him. As he worked with Aitchison, she noticed a change in his attitude. He began writing notes to his parents to tell them where he was going, something he couldn’t do before. Words whose spelling eluded him in the past were now firmly secured in his memory.
“We don’t have to ask him to do his homework from Diane,” Nohema said. “He likes to do it.”
Jared was in special education throughout his schooling. Paul Graber, his father, said Jared’s mental problems are the result of his brain suffering from a lack of oxygen while he was still in the womb, because the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck.
Paul said the teachers in the district did everything they could to help Jared read. Nevertheless, his progress was slow and he had trouble meeting the goals set for him. His parents worried whether he would obtain the necessary skills to support himself and some day become independent. They knew that learning to read was critical to making that dream become a reality.
The Grabers discovered Aitchison through an advertisement in The Ledger. Paul said Aitchison was a godsend to the family at a time when they had nearly given up hope on teaching Jared to read.
Aitchison has spent 20 years as a reading instructor at the college level. Before moving to Fairfield, she taught at St. Louis Community College in Meramec. She and Jared meet for two hours twice a week. The individual instruction has allowed Jared to learn new words at break-neck speed.
The secret, Aitchison said, is training Jared to use as many of his senses as possible when he’s reading. For instance, he taps the syllables of each word as he says them aloud. The combination of seeing the word with his eyes, hearing it with his ears and feeling it with his fingers cements it in his memory. Jared agrees that this multi-sensory approach to reading is responsible for his recent strides.
As Jared’s confidence in his abilities grew, he became interested in branching out into reading material beyond his assignments. He stumbled upon a series of mystery novels called “Hank the Cowdog” about a dog named Hank that herds cattle and guards a ranch in Texas. Jared has become so engrossed in the books that he can barely stand to put them down. Finally, reading has ceased to be a chore and is now a pleasure.
Aitchison said the Hank the Cowdog series is perfect for Jared because each of the 27 books is a little harder than the one before, introducing Jared to new words. She said Jared has an uncanny ability to infer an unfamiliar word’s meaning from context clues alone.
Jared said he is particularly fond of Hank the Cowdog because he enjoys reading about animals. The titular character Hank reminds him of the dog his grandparents have on their farm. His love of furry creatures led him to volunteer at Noah’s Ark Animal Foundation in Fairfield.
When Jared’s nose is not in a book, he likes to spend his time painting. Nohema said he has been working on a picture of a scene from Egypt, and that he loves learning about other cultures. He has checked out audio CDs and reading materials from the library to learn introductory Hebrew and Japanese.
“He wants to know about how other cultures live and what they eat,” his mother said.
Nohema was born and raised in Mexico and has taught Spanish to her three children. She said she regularly communicates with Jared in Spanish and that he is fully bilingual. The family makes a yearly trip to Nohema’s hometown of Xalapa, which is where Jared would like to live someday. He said he wants to live in Mexico to be close to his mother’s extended family.
Jared has other aspirations, too, which involve obtaining an advanced post-secondary degree. His older brother, Christian, attended Iowa State University, which is where Jared would like to study, too. He’s quite interested in airplanes and sees himself majoring in aeronautics. Paul said Jared’s recent enthusiasm for Iowa State is surprising considering that, when Christian was in school, Jared was an avid Hawkeye fan just to tease his brother.
As a matter of fact, Jared has already attained a reading level that would qualify him for college through a program called REACH (Realizing Educational And Career Hopes). The program is sponsored by the University of Iowa and is intended to provide a college-campus experience for students with cognitive disabilities. Aitchison said Jared’s reading ability has risen to a fourth-grade level in the time she’s worked with him.
Marci Dunlap, curriculum director in the Fairfield Community School District, explained how students could obtain a high school diploma without testing at their grade level in certain subjects. She said students receive a diploma based on whether they have completed the requisite credit hours to graduate and not necessarily on attaining a certain level of academic proficiency.
Students who test at least two grade levels below their grade are assigned to an Individualized Educational Program, which refers to a set of goals set for the student by that child’s parents, guardians, teachers, administrators and others with an interest in the child’s education. Students obtain credits for their classes provided they are showing progress toward their IEP goals. Fairfield Community Schools superintendent Art Sathoff said about 12 percent of the student body had been on an IEP.
Dunlap said the school does all it can to prepare special education students for the real world, including a “work experience” course where the students work part time at a business outside the school. The district learned that it has 14 students eligible for a program called RISE whereby they could attend Indian Hills Community College while maintaining their IEP support team.
According to a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), school districts must offer special education for students through age 21. Dunlap said it’s rare for a student to remain in the school system through age 21, and that the district usually helps the student find employment or other educational opportunities such as RISE or REACH.
Dunlap said the program was not fully implemented in 2010 when Jared graduated. Paul said he and Nohema would have kept Jared in school a few more years if that had been an option. They said he misses the opportunities for socialization high school afforded him, but his spirits have never been higher than they are now. Paul said Jared has an extra bounce in his step on days when he meets with Aitchison.
“I think Diane is his favorite person who’s not a family member,” Paul said.