Catch Up with the Cowboys


//PICTURED ABOVE: Showcasing their shiny new medals, Charles Gill Elementary Catch Up and Read graduates grin alongside their teachers. Catch Up and Read is a program focused on improving D.I.S.D. students’ reading skills and ensuring their educational success. Photo by Caroline O’Brien.

As bright Hockaday students dabble in the words of the Brontë sisters, Dickens and Homer, many well-educated teenagers sometimes forget what a world without literature, stories and bridges to other vivid worlds would be like. Sadly, for hundreds of students in the Dallas community, the words off their own school books just don’t stick. Reading builds vocabulary and strengthens not only memory but conceptual understanding. Even though many students may not enjoy the literary tales they are assigned to read in class each day, the ability to read proves time and time again to be exponentially crucial for the success of a student.

While many schools understand this fundamental principle of learning, some students fall behind. In fact, studies have shown that reading levels for students in the third grade can be used as warning signs of future graduation derailment. In a study released by the American Educational Research Association, they found that a student who can’t read on grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate compared to a child who reads proficiently at that age.

With third grade being a pivotal point in a child’s educational career, the organization Catch Up and Read has stepped in, helping transform the lives of at-risk elementary students in Dallas Independent School District by equipping them with skills to read on grade level by third grade. Through multiple partnerships with the Dallas cowboys and generous donors, the foundation strives to make a difference in the lives of children across Dallas. Caroline O’Brien, one of the executive directors of the organization and a Hockaday parent, understands Catch Up and Read’s crucial- ness. She started working with the program when the founder, Catherine Leblanc, explained the organization’s goal to O’Brien four years ago. At the time, Caroline O’Brien was working on her P.h.D concerning exercise and its benefits, so due to her studies and the organization’s main goal, the two women became fast friends.

“I just loved what [Leblanc] was creating,” Caroline O’Brien said. “She was trying to figure out a way to help students in schools learn how to read through tutoring and after-school programs. It really builds relationships.”

Leblanc worked with organizations and schools, such as Southern Methodist University, to develop a program that instructs teachers how to more efficiently develop reading skills in their students.

Catch Up and Read consists of an effective three-pronged approach: collaboration with school leadership, after-school tutoring and advanced teacher training. First, the program collaborates weekly with school leadership to design and implement data driven instruction and to ensure alignment and accountability for results. By equipping the teachers with proven reading strategies, the program can assure accountability.

Next, the program singles out groups of at-risk students according to their deficiencies and tutors the children after school in an 8-to-1 student-teacher ratio. Sadly, in a traditional educational setting, many low performing students do not grasp concepts when the teacher delivers the lesson. Through fun activities and one-on-one attention, the students start to retain the concepts taught in class to a further extent.

Even though the students are the ones most affected in educational deficits, the program realizes that they must target and coach the teachers as well, for the benefit of the students in the long term. With the help of advanced technology, the organization grooms the teachers to be able to deliver individualized material based upon ongoing computerized assessments for each student. Also, the teachers are compensated for their after-hours time and are paid during their informational sessions.

But before any of these programs are even implemented, Catch Up and Read has to make sure the schools will wholeheartedly stick to their scheduled plan and curriculum. “I often go on campuses to meet with prospective schools to make sure that our philosophies match with theirs,” Caroline O’Brien said. “We want to know that the teachers understand how to teach effectively through our program.”

Not only has the organization received many donations and interest around Dallas, former Dallas Cowboys player and five-time Super Bowl ring holder, Charles Haley, funded Russell Elementary for $60,000 last year. With the help of Haley, the organization is able to talk to recent and former player as well as potential donors, opening the door for come generous contributions.

“He really tried to spread the message that this is important work to change how we see the education for all the students in Dallas,” Caroline O’Brien said. “He’s a great spokesperson for children in poverty and those who need help reaching their potential.” Today, the program is currently working with 12 schools and an estimated 520 students in the Dallas ISD. With 20 schools on the waiting list for the program, Catch Up and Read has seen major gains in reading proficiency in every school they have worked with.

“We track not only year-to-year effectiveness of the program, but long term as well,” Caroline O’Brien said. “Ninety percent of our students make gains, and with the other 10 percent that don’t make gains, our teachers help document and try to intervene to make sure the students don’t have learning disabilities.”

Fabian Hypolite, Principal at Chapel Hill Preparatory, has seen these improvements at his own elementary school ever since the Catch Up and Read program was implemented four years ago.

“The advantage of having [Catch Up and Read] on our campus is two-fold. Our teachers who participate through the professional development…eventually become stronger reading teachers on campus and experts in using ISIP data,” Hypolite said. “Our students learn social and emotional skills and ultimately become stronger readers. Last year more that 75 percent of our third graders in the program met their grade reading level.”

Even though the school’s own teachers mentor the at-risk children, Hockaday students, like Caroline O’Brien’s daughter Elly O’Brien, have volunteered recently with the program’s yearly graduation.

“I have worked with Catch up and Read, mostly towards the end of the school year with each DISD schools graduation,” Elly O’Brien said. “They give the students in the program a certificate that congratulates them on their reading, so I take pictures of the students and their parents on stage, help organize goody bags for teachers and sort paperwork for the program.”

Story by Paige Halverson, Managing Editor

Photo by Caroline O’Brien