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Teacher helps keep children on track

Christine Spencer, a reading specialist educator, guides Ali Ritzert, 9, in a word syllable exercise at Chicora Elementary School while Lily Mitro, 9, listens. Spencer has worked in the Karns City Area School District for 18 years. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle

CHICORA — Title 1 reading teacher Christine Spencer likes to compare her job to that of a doctor.

“We diagnose any issues that the kiddos are having with learning to read, and then we prescribe specific interventions, chart how they’re growing, the progress they’re making, and hopefully get them reading at grade level,” she said.

Spencer teaches at Chicora Elementary School in Karns City Area School District. She works with struggling readers from kindergarten to sixth grade.

For her, the payoff happens when a student has an epiphany.

“It’s most rewarding whenever you see that they get it, when the light just clicks. Or whenever they come to you saying, ‘I can’t read,’ ‘I can’t read’ and ‘I can’t read those words.’ ‘You’re asking me to read?’ And then they finally make it, and the smiles, just the surprise that they have on their face.”

Working with students at a variety of reading levels means allotting time for everyone to receive the help they need. That can prove a challenge, since a student with a slightly below-average reading level needs to succeed too, but requires less intensive focus than one with a lower reading level.

A factor that helps, she said, is the mutual support that describes the culture of the school district.

Christine Spencer, a reading specialist educator, guides Nathan Dodd, 9, in a word syllable exercise at Chicora Elementary School in October. Spencer has worked in the Karns City Area School District for 18 years. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle

Our school district is very close-knit, she said.

“I know the kids by name. Every kid in the building, I can usually call them by at least their first name, if not their last. You get to work with the families. Everyone looks out for everyone. And we just want everyone to succeed.”

A typical day

Staff arrive at Chicora Elementary shortly before students on a typical day to meet and develop lesson plans. At 8:25 a.m., Spencer’s first student group meets with her over breakfast. They hit the ground running, diving right into lessons while they eat.

Each session lasts a half-hour, with a new session starting with a different group as soon as the first leaves.

“It takes the teachers’ willingness to send their kids every day, because that’s a big part for them to remember to send their kids down to me to make an efficient system, where I don’t have to go pick up the kids and take them back,” Spencer said.

Sometimes specific children require tailored help, as part of an action plan Spencer coordinates with classroom teachers. Educators call this a “multitiered system of supports.”

Christine Spencer, a reading specialist educator, leads fourth-grade students in a word syllable exercise at Chicora Elementary School on Oct. 18. Spencer has worked in the Karns City Area School District for 18 years. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle

“Students may be working with a speech teacher,” she said. “They may be working with a classroom teacher. They may be working with the reading specialist, a paraprofessional. We look at what each child needs and narrow that down and put them with the appropriate personnel to make sure all kids are succeeding.”

Solutions can mean working directly with a guidance counselor or can mean an enrichment activity

An enrichment activity is an experience where children can extend their learning to improve or enhance skills, knowledge and well-being. It can include the construction of creative media such as comic books, an idea Spencer developed when helping cover for a fifth-grade teacher in a different role.

“We utilized Google slides, where they designed their own comic books and wrote their books while I was working with students, giving them some intervention that they needed,” she said. “So it can be something as simple as reading a chapter book of their choice and then reporting out on it to the rest of the class or making a book blurb about it.”

Spencer has served students for 22 years. She started out in other districts as a kindergarten and substitute teacher, day-to-day roles that offered less of a chance to build connections with students.

She has worked as a reading specialist for 18 years at Karns City.

“I love my job,” she said. “It’s so rewarding. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I love seeing the kids progress every year, and a lot of my students I get to know from kindergarten on, because I get the chance to work with a lot of different kids throughout the day.

She looks forward to the future of her field and the promise that it holds to better serve her students too.

“There’s a lot of new research, medical research out that has definitely changed and gotten into my instruction over the past couple of years,” she said. “We’ve been able to implement some really good core programs in our classrooms, which leads to less referrals. Like for intervention, I’ve been working really hard with our administration to do that.”

Christine Spencer, a reading specialist educator, leads a word syllable exercise at Chicora Elementary School in October. Spencer has worked in the Karns City Area School District for 18 years. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle
Nathan Dodd, 9, writes on the white board at Chicora Elementary School in October. The fourth-grader was studying syllables. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle

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