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Mebane Foundation giving the gift of reading through HillRAP

It’s 3:15 in the afternoon. While most of their friends are finished with school for the day, four third-grade girls are bursting through the door of the Mebane Foundation office in downtown Mocksville to take advantage of an amazing opportunity to boost their literacy skills.

The Mebane Foundation is piloting a unique program that utilizes a retired teacher to provide the Hill Reading Achievement Program (HillRAP) to students who don’t receive the powerful literacy intervention during the school day.

HillRAP is a research-based, multisensory, structured language approach to teaching reading developed by the Hill Center of Durham. During HillRAP, a specially-trained teacher guides groups of four students through exercises in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each student has a specialized curriculum to provide individualized instruction where it is needed most.

Moving counter-clockwise: Luwonna Oakes, Davie HillRAP teacher; Honor Draughn, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Petra Murphy, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Amelia Battle, a third-grade student at Mocksville Elementary School; Brynlee Logan, a third-grade student at Pinebrook Elementary
School. Courtesy of the Mebane Foundation

Because HillRAP is so individualized and requires direct instruction, the program cannot be used for a whole group. Teachers and schools must intentionally schedule the time to implement the program, limiting the number of students able to participate.

“Our number one goal is to help children succeed in reading,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation. “Secondly, we are trying to assist the Hill Center by testing a tutoring model that makes the Hill methodology accessible to a lot more families and students. The normal cost is $50 per hour per student which isn’t attainable for many of the families who need the program. By using a retired teacher who is at the top of her game when it comes to Hill, we are piloting and subsidizing a program that provides this valuable methodology for only $25 a week per student for three hours of tutoring.

“It’s been rewarding that we had available space in our office since early literacy is our mission. This program is a win for the child and a win for the retired teacher who is able to increase their income in retirement. We’d love to replicate the program with more retired teachers trained in HillRAP and help more students.”

“Although we are starting small because we don’t know where this will lead, my hope is that the program becomes so attractive to families and teachers that we have difficulty handling the volume,” he said, adding that he hopes to expand the program this summer to help prevent summer reading loss.  

Colbourne selected Luwonna Oakes to serve as the first tutor. She retired from Davie County schools last spring after 21 years as William R. Davie Elementary School’s reading specialist. Coincidentally, she has been involved with the Mebane Foundation’s work since 2002 when she was selected for a committee to explore K-3 best practices in Davie County Schools. She was among the first to receive Hill Center level one certification and level two mentor training through funding from the Foundation and participated in the pilot program to evaluate the digital version of the HillRAP methodology which was released in 2016.

“I’m thankful that Larry reached out to me because I knew I would need to work part-time when I retired and this is the perfect opportunity,” Oakes said. “I’m also grateful to have been involved with the Mebane Foundation since 2002 when Mr. Mebane was still alive and beginning his involvement in Davie County.”

She still proudly displays the plaque she received for being one of those early Mebane Scholars. “The funding he has provided to Davie County schools not only allowed me to have HillRAP training but to go back to the Hill Center for continued professional development.”

Whisper phones allow students to quietly read or practice words so that they can hear themselves but others are not disturbed. Reading out loud helps them to correct their own errors as they hear what they are saying. Courtesy of the Mebane Foundation

Oakes was tasked with selecting the first group of four as quickly as possible. She found the first, Brynlee Logan from Pinebrook Elementary, after a chance discussion with her mother at a social gathering. She then turned to Suzie Hecht, reading teacher at Mocksville Elementary, the closest school to the Mebane Foundation office, for help identifying three additional students to finish out the group.

“We started with third-graders because of the pressure on them to meet the North Carolina standards and to pass their first EOGs. It puts a lot of stress on the students and their parents,” Oakes said. “We hope to expand the program to include first- and second-graders this summer.”

“We wanted to find children who needed additional support in literacy and who would benefit from this specific methodology but weren’t already receiving it at school. Using data from school assessments, the reading teachers identified students who needed a little extra help developing reading fluency (reading rate and expression) and accuracy.”

Hecht sent out 10 letters and the first to respond — Amelia Battle, Honor Draughn, and Petra Murphy — were selected to participate. 

“Our invited students were very close to meeting goals in various reading assessments, indicating they might show proficiency in third grade by the end of the year. However, they were not there yet,” said Hecht. “These students needed an extra intervention to specifically target their needs. HillRAP was a great fit — I knew they would be in very capable hands with Luwonna. We were so excited to be on the ground floor of this new initiative. We are very appreciative of all the Mebane Foundation has done to impact literacy in Davie County.”

Family members are thrilled with the generous opportunity the girls are receiving.

“There are students who are doing well but could be doing so much better if they had just a little bit more help,” said Lana Weaver, Amelia’s grandmother, who as a teacher for 42 years quickly recognized the value of this program. “Amelia loves to read and is excited about coming.”

Amelia Battle, Mocksville Elementary School student practices reading fluency using HillRAP
software on an iPad. Courtesy of the Mebane Foundation

Barbara Everhart, Brynlee’s grandmother, and a former teacher said she was “overjoyed because this is something that will make her feel better about her reading ability.”

“I’m excited about this opportunity,” said Aubrey Draughn, Honor’s mother. “I hope it will give her more confidence in her reading, writing, comprehension, and fluency, and she is excited about it.” 

Oakes knows well the value HillRAP can bring to a child’s life. Her first HillRAP students are now seniors in high school and doing well.

“I want all children to have a joy for reading and a love for learning,” she said. “I want to support them crossing the bridge to reading efficiency and experience the fun of reading, where they can visualize, enjoy, and escape through a book. They may never personally visit Africa or the Outback of Australia, but they can go there in a book. It’s the next best thing to being there.”

Editor’s note: The Mebane Foundation supports the work of EducationNC.

Jeanna White
Jeanna White is a writer for the Mebane Charitable Foundation in Mocksville. Ten years as a substitute teacher for students from preschool through high school has given her a unique perspective and passion for education. White graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism.