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Award-winning teacher helps young readers

In this file photo, Amir Guthrie, 8, works on a reading exercise.

In this file photo, Amir Guthrie, 8, works on a reading exercise.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Students Andrew Guitierrez, age 7, left, and Matthew Bran, age 8, right, show off their reading work during a reading workshop given by Milken Award winner and teacher Kelly Stopp. Kelly works with elementary school children in a reading program that she has developed with her award. The group meets monthly as Kelly reads to the children and gives them books to read at home.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Milken Award winner and teacher Kelly Stopp, left, works with student Kevin Alvarenga, age 6, right and other elementary school children in a reading program that she has developed with her award. The group meets monthly as Kelly reads to the children and gives them books to read at home. At center is student Valerie DelAngel, age 8.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Milken Award winner Kelly Stopp reads to elementary school children in a reading program that she has developed with her award. The group meets monthly in Norcross as Kelly reads to the children and gives them books to read at home.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Milken Award winner Kelly Stopp, right, works with Stephanie Moreno, age 7, and other elementary school children in a reading program that she has developed with her award. The group meets monthly as Kelly reads to the children and gives them books to read at home.

NORCROSS -- Teacher Kelly Stopp knows the body language of a child struggling to read.

"I see so many students who have frustration in their faces. They get agitated. They slouch in their chairs. They look defeated."

The Meadowcreek Elementary reading specialist knows the feeling all too well.

"It took me many years," Stopp said. "It was something my parents were continually helping me with. Even as an adult, reading is still difficult for me."

Her struggle with books as a child not only inspired her to become an educator but to move specifically into the literacy field.

A 2010 recipient of the prestigious Milken Family Foundation Award for educators, she has chosen to use the $25,000 award to promote literacy in a unique way.

Once a month, Stopp and fellow volunteers drive to Oakbrook Point Apartments, where 70 percent of Meadowcreek's students live. A clubhouse at the complex serves as the backdrop where Stopp and others read stories to about 60 students and their families. Most are non-native readers and speakers of English.

She calls the program Sunset Stories. The name came from her childhood memory of being read to sleep by a parent.

"We wanted to foster literacy outside the school," she said. "We wanted to go into the community and build relationships with not only the kids but their parents.

"We wanted to give them time to interact together with school-related activities that weren't necessarily homework," she said.

When she and fellow volunteers go to the apartment complex, parents and children sit together.

"We talk about some of the things we learned last time. We talk about the skill we learned the month before," she said. "It's a family setting. It's a time to be together and learn together."

Stopp used money from the Milken Award -- given to only two teachers in the state of Georgia last year -- to buy crayons, pencils and paper. The supplies helped her jump start the program. But a majority of the money went to buy books, so each child could have one to call their own. That was important, she said.

Research shows children are more likely to be successful in school when they own books, Stopp said.

Fellow Sunset Stories volunteer and Meadowcreek Elementary teacher Suzanne Vogt agreed.

"One of the best things about this is they get to build their library at their house," Vogt said. "When they are invested like that, there's more incentive. When they know they are going to get their own book, there's that desire to learn how to read it."

Buying all the books and supplies for the program wasn't cheap, Vogt said.

When Stopp received her $25,000 for the Milken Award money, Vogt saids he urged her to use it for herself. "They told her, 'This is your money. Use it on you.'"

Added Vogt: "The fact that she wanted to spend her money on this program is just amazing."

Hailed as the "Oscars of Teaching" by Teacher Magazine, the Milken Educator Awards were launched in 1987 to "celebrate, elevate and activate exemplary K-12 educators."

According to its website, the Milken Family Foundation has honored 2,500 teachers, principals and specialists with more than $62 million in individual, unrestricted $25,000 awards.

"Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved ... and for the promise of what they will accomplish in the future."

Vogt said the Milken Award money Stopp used was sufficient to get the program going, and it's been going strong since February. The future of Sunset Stories, however, may involve a search for grant money.

"We're donating our time and expertise as teachers, but we have to have the money to keep the program going," Vogt said.

Stopp said donating her time for Sunset Stories is nothing short of an honor for her on a personal level.

"It took me many years to learn to read," Stopp said. "It was a struggle. Not feeling successful in school was a horrible feeling. That feeling I felt, as unfortunate as it was at the time ... it has helped this program become a calling for me."

Stopp said reading teaches more than literacy. "It teaches self-esteem and confidence," she said. "It's the most basic of building blocks in education, and we don't want these kids to miss out on the most important step."