University Park, IL,
09:22 AM

Exploring Success in the Literacy Zone

Thirteen-year-old Amara Jones is a success by any measure.

She consistently earns As in all subjects at Ariel Community Academy, where she has played volleyball and run track since 4th grade. With a natural knack for math and science, Amara enjoys participating in technology and investment clubs.

Now in eighth grade, Amara has found a flow in swimmingwinning races and collecting awards.

But in the spring of 2018 the teen’s confidence dipped when she scored lower than expected on the reading section of an Illinois standardized test.

Her mom was a Governors State University (GSU) employee at the time, and turned to her colleagues in the Literacy Zone for assistance as her only child was navigating a demanding schedule.

The Literacy Zone is a training clinic for GSU graduate students, who want to be school psychologists and school counselors, serving children and families in the surrounding communities with interventions in reading, math, and social emotional development.

GSU students provide evidenced –based interventions as part of their training in the College of Education’s (COE) Division of Psychology and Counseling.

Associate Professor Danel Koonce coordinates the COE School of Psychology Program and oversees the Literacy Zone. He assessed Amara and paired her with Miriel Martinez, a graduate student who wants to help schools and families identify learning disabilities in elementary and middle school students.

They determined Amara was struggling with test-taking anxiety. It wasn’t a major case, but mom —Ebony Jones—wanted to nip it in the bud before Amara goes to high school.

“She’s juggling a lot with scholarship essays and tests and swimming. She was doing OK, but her testing didn’t reflect her classroom performance,’’ said Jones, then GSU’s Assistant Director, Office of Sponsored Programs and Research. 

Jones was grateful for the Literacy Zone, which Koonce took over in 2018 with a new mission.

“I want to empower families by giving them the skills to work with their children and also to meet the mental health needs in the community,’’ said Koonce. “There are so few social service agencies in the area that can help children and adolescents with these specific concerns.”

He and graduate student Nicole Ratliff recently developed an individual plan for a six-year old who was having trouble self-regulating his emotions, which when unchecked, derailed school days, and disrupted learning.

Koonce and his student partnered with the child’s grandparents to help support a smoother transition home.

Ratliff said the Literacy Zone allows students like her to potentially change the course of families’ lives by training future professionals to step in with strategies younger students can use at home and in school.

Ratliff appreciates the real-world experience GSU provides.

“There is a great need for school psychologists right now. Without them students are not going to be productive members of society,” she said.

Martinez brings her teaching background to her one-on-one sessions with Amara.

Since the spring, they have been working to calm Amara’s test anxiety and develop strategies to think through and organize her ideas.

It’s a proficiency that will carry over to homework and projects assignments, as well.

“She has a lot of the skills already, we’re just putting them into action,” said Martinez who drives from the far north side to meet Amara on the South Side.

At a recent off-site meeting, Martinez helped Amara understand academic performance by drawing an analogy between preparing for tests and the sport Amara loves.

“When she is going into a swim meet, she prepares for weeks—timing herself and setting goals for improvement. But when she takes standardized tests, there is no goal or rate for improvements. Most kids don't know that if they usually get a 230 and study every day, they can get to a 240. So we have to learn to organize ourselves to set and meet our testing goals.”

Jones said she can already see the difference in her child: Amara has been proactively asking about scholarship deadlines and high school visits.

Amara, too, looks forward to the long-term payoff from working with Martinez.

“She is helping me open my mind and properly prepare for high school and all the work I’m going to be doing there.”