Bekah S. McNeel

When Salvador Rico started school at Spicewood Park Elementary School in Southwest ISD, he had a long road ahead of him. He was so far behind his peers in second grade that the class reading chart only served as a constant reminder of the skills he lacked and the widening gap between him and, as he puts it, “success.”

He was intuitively aware of a well researched phenomenon.

There’s a common maxim among educators that says, “In K-3 you learn to read, in 4-8 you read to learn.” The maxim is simplistic, yes, and does not acknowledge the continuing importance of honing children’s reading skills. But it is based on qualified research demonstrating that children who struggle with reading in the 3rd grade continue to struggle throughout their school career.

Spicewood Park Elementary School in SWISD
Spicewood Park Elementary School in SWISD

Up until 3rd grade students are developing at different rates. A late-bloomer in September may be at the top of the class by May. For teachers entrusted with the education of 20-plus students per year, meeting the individual needs of each struggling child can be daunting – if not impossible.

Not every child has access to one-on-one tutoring with Mom and Dad. Many are the only English-speakers in their home. Others have parents who work long hours, and don’t have the energy to fight the battle of supplemental reading. Some situations are worse.

Rico, like many students in San Antonio schools, faces the extra hurdle of learning English while “reading to learn.” He finds himself playing catch up before the game even begins. Thankfully for Rico, a gregarious kid with mounds of leadership potential, Spicewood Park Elementary School has brought in SAReads.

SAReads, a campaign of Literacy San Antonio, Inc, has a crisp, clean mission: Grade-level reading for all Bexar County students. In alignment with SA2020‘s education goals, during the next seven years they aim to increase the percentage of students reading at the recommended standard from 46% to 80%. They also want to see 5% more of total students demonstrating reading proficiency from its current level of 91%.

The campaign’s main initiative is a one-on-one tutoring program that brings university education departments, businesses, rotary clubs, and communities in to schools to tutor children identified by their teachers as being at risk for literacy struggles. Students like Salvador.

(l to r) Nita Salisbury, Ariana Gomez, Ms. Duncan, Trent, Theresa Arellano, Salvador, and Leslie Komet Ausburn celebrate reading.
(l to r) Nita Salisbury, Ariana Gomez, Ms. Duncan, Trent, Theresa Arellano, Salvador, and Leslie Komet Ausburn celebrate reading.

SWISD has the added benefit of proximity to Texas A&M San Antonio (TAMUSA) where a successful program, championed by Lecturer and University Planner Ruth Ball, has been created for students to earn class credit for serving as tutors.

“It’s a big confidence booster,” says Nita Salisbury, the Reading Specialist at Spicewood Park. Salvador is one such example: he no longer dreads looking at the progress chart, as he begins to catch and in some areas surpass his classmates.

The effectiveness of one-on-one tutoring is so palpable, that it seems to be a cure for almost any educational struggle. Theresa Arellano, a student at TAMUSA was one tutor seeing such progress. While the time spent with each student remains limited by the requirements of their school day, Arellano stayed on after her semester was up. No class credits needed, she was just sold on the results.

“I wish there was more time!” she said.

Arellano has the additional perspective of being a Spicewood Park parent. Her own kids bargain and plead when they don’t want to cooperate. When compared to working with her SAReads buddy, she points out that kids focus and behave better for the tutors. These are not people who are paid or bound by nature to love them. These are people who are there just because they want to be.

It speaks to the power of community. Kids are perceptive, and the power of a local business person taking time away from their job to spend time reading with an eight-year-old is not lost. The kids see older generations, college students and business people who value education. For many of them, this sort of one-on-one attention is completely new. And they love it.

“One-on-one,” Salisbury said. “Who can beat that?”

Salisbury has seen results from the program, even after only one semester. Students are beginning to move beyond mechanics and phonics into comprehension. She is seeing slight movement across the assessment matrix, and has big hopes for the future of the program.

SAReads has the benefit of being flexible as they assess the needs of the students. When it became clear that 1-3 grade was not enough, they added a kindergarten program. They are open to extending upward as well. The one thing holding them back?

Ariana Gomez, Salvador, and Trent, Spicewood Park Elementary School 2nd graders show off their reading accomplishments.
Ariana Gomez, Salvador, and Trent, Spicewood Park Elementary School 2nd graders show off their reading accomplishments.

“We need more people!” said Leslie Komet Ausburn, Director of Communications for SA Reads.

With one-on-one tutoring, there is not a maximum capacity for volunteers. Businesses, non-profits, rotaries, and other organizations have generously volunteered their time, and there’s always room for more.

Tutoring is complemented by other initiatives like the Book Bank and Book Drive. In 2010 Representative Joaquín Castro committed the reins of the “Joaquín Castro Book Drive” to SAReads, and the program has seen strong and steady growth. Even Barnes and Noble has gotten on board, designating SAReads as the beneficiary of their holiday book drive, which yielded 6,085 books in 2012. The Book Bank, housed at FirstMark Credit Union, and supported by many sponsors, raises around 60,000 books for children every year.

Salvador Rico wants to be a police officer when he grows up. He knows he has a long road ahead of him with many tests, both standardized and informal. His SAReads tutors are giving him more than the practical skills needed to pass those tests, they are investing in his character and confidence in ways that will benefit our city for decades to come.

SAReads meets periodically with a coalition of concerned organizations and individuals to discuss the challenges and various initiatives in San Antonio and Bexar County. The next coalition meeting is Tuesday, April 9th from 9:30 a.m.- 11 a.m. at the Central Library (600 Soledad).

“Everyone who has an interest in literacy from any angle is welcome and invited to join us,” Ausburn said.

Do take her up on it.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

Bonham Academy: A Parent-Driven Success Story February 2013

H-E-B Recognizes Exceptional Educators with Surprise Cash Rewards February 2013

Advice to a Divided School Board: Look South for the Next Superintendent February 2013

Beyond Field Trips: SAMA Invests in Children and School Curriculums January 2013

Amid a Host of Parents, a Catholic School Thrives January 2013

The Uncertain Future of San Antonio’s Inner City Catholic Schools January 2013

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.