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Students bond through Reading Buddies

Even as young as 4 years old, seventh grader Ellie Hildabrand, 13, of Woodland Middle School in Brentwood, showed an affinity for helping others. “She’s just made that way,” said her mom, Fran.

In preschool, she served as a peer model in a split class consisting of general education students and students with special needs in Williamson County Schools. The experience formed her foundation for accepting differences and doing her part to help.

“I think that experience helped to shape her,” said Fran. “She has always been sensitive to the needs of others and fulfills a need when she sees it.”

Putting her strong character to use and her background in helping those with special needs, Hildabrand implemented a school-wide reading program, “Reading Buddies” at WMS.

Because of her efforts, Hildabrand landed a spot as a semi-finalist in the Build-A-Bear Workshop Huggable Heroes award. Only 80 students out of 1,000 across the nation were chosen as semi-finalists. Finalists will be announced in May, while the 10 winners will be announced this summer.

“She has demonstrated true leadership by rallying others in a quiet way,” said Principal Pricilla Fizer. “Woodland is incredibly proud of Ellie's commitment and dedication.”

This year, learning labs and special-education classrooms bustle with student reading partners who rotate reading sessions throughout the day five days a week. An activity that started out with only one peer reader – Ellie – Reading Buddies has grown to include about 20 peer models from all grade levels at the school, sixth through eighth grade.

Hildabrand said that connecting to others and building camaraderie among students in the school community has been one the most rewarding aspects of her experience in organizing the program.

Sixth- through eighth-grade students read to children with special needs based on a rotating reading schedule during Focus (similar to a study hall) periods daily.

“The special needs children feel included and see their reading buddies in the hall. They know each other by name,” said Fran.

The program was inspired by the community work needed to obtain a Girl Scout Silver Award. Hildabrand set out to devise a sustainable community project that would impact others for years to come, so she settled on one of her favorite pastime activities – reading. She didn’t expect for her idea to expand into a school-wide activity.

“Ellie has a heart for students with special needs and a love of reading,” Lindsey Anderson said, who serves as the Woodland Middle librarian.

While only a sixth-grade student, Hildabrand planted the seeds for her designated Reading Buddies program to grow. She developed a schedule and a plan to make a difference. She began reading to children with special needs in the Learning Lab during her Focus period just to see if it had potential for success. After a few times reading, Hildabrand discovered that the kids loved it, and the idea took off.

Hildabrand enjoyed helping others so much, she believed that other students would enjoy it as well.

“I learned that people like to be helped and that people want to help,” she said.

However, Hildabrand ran into a small roadblock during the implementation phase of the program when she discovered that the school library lacked a sufficient amount of picture books, which proved essential for the reading program. Not letting the obstacle stop her, Hildabrand organized a book drive ultimately collecting 200 picture books for Reading Buddies. Her grandfather even built a shelf in which to store the books for the program.

“As a result of her idea for Reading Buddies, many book club members donated books and regularly read to their special-needs peers. This has proved to be a valuable program that we will have for years to come,” Anderson said.

“The best part about the program is seeing the kids happy and their faces light up when reading,” said Hildabrand. “I learned that people like to be helped, that making new friends is fun and that everyone wants to be connected.”

Posted on: 4/24/2013


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