Schools teach children to read until third grade, when their education shifts. Lessons about the mechanics of reading fall to the wayside as textbooks are introduced and students are exposed to new ideas and concepts they must read to understand.
"They go from learning to read to reading to learn starting in fourth grade," said Dundee-Crown High School teacher Karen Leinen. "Those kids that never mastered learning to read continue to fall further and further and further behind."
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Leinen, of Elgin, is a special-education teacher at Dundee-Crown and she works with many students whose reading comprehension is years behind their grade level.
Part of her days are spent in a resource room working with students who qualify for special education services and have individualized education plans. But even in the periods where she co-teaches in blended classrooms with special and general education students, Leinen notices the broad literacy deficits of both groups of students.
"In the past, we have not taken on teaching how to read seriously at the secondary school levels. We were teaching them content," Leinen said. "We need to do both."
Leinen figured she should go back to school to increase her own expertise in the area her students showed the highest need. So while most high schoolers were taking advantage of summer vacation as a chance for a break from coursework, Leinen was putting the finishing touches on her dissertation in adolescent literacy.
Leinen received her doctorate in educational leadership from Argosy University in June after writing a dissertation analyzing a reading intervention program at Dundee-Crown High School called Phonics Blitz TM. The program targets students reading at the fourth-grade level or higher and Leinen found statistically significant literacy improvement among students at Dundee-Crown because of the program. Latino students made particular gains.
Chris Columbaro, associate principal for curriculum and instruction at Dundee-Crown, said Leinen's knowledge about literacy is an asset for struggling students who may be behind because of reading, not necessarily because they have difficulty understanding the content of a class.
Already Leinen has proved to be a great resource for other members of her department, Columbaro said. And she hopes to do even more in the coming year, offering to help her fellow teachers better integrate literacy into their various content areas.
"We're all in this together," Columbaro said, "and Karen certainly epitomizes that."
Leinen's standard day begins at 6:30 a.m. at the high school, an hour before students are expected to show up. The early start gives her a chance to catch up on email, listen to any voice mails in her teacher mailbox and prep for class.
Besides her teaching responsibilities, Leinen also serves as a case manager for students with special needs. That means preparing IEPs every year, consulting with general education teachers who have her students, modifying assignments and tests for the teens she works with, observing student behavior and working to change problem behaviors that get in the way of student achievement.
Then there are the services she provides her students' families. Leinen regularly communicates with parents, handles referrals for other services and coordinates transition plans to ready graduates for college and work.
Kris Chipman's son Jeremy Perez worked with Leinen as a student at Dundee-Crown and Chipman appreciated her dedication so much she requested her youngest son Garrett get on Leinen's caseload as well. Garrett will be a junior this year.
Chipman said Leinen is a teacher who knows her students' abilities and even if they doubt themselves, she pushes them to excel to their highest potential. She gives individual attention to students at a time when Chipman recognizes teachers are often overworked with larger classroom sizes and more responsibilities.
"It's certainly not like when I was growing up," Chipman said. "Karen almost brings that element of the old-time teacher back. She wants to stay with the kids, she won't let up on them, she pushes them, she encourages them. She believes in them."
Leinen faced some health problems in recent years and was wheelchair-bound for a time. Even then, parents and her colleagues noticed her continued dedication and passion for her students while balancing her doctoral work at the same time.
Matt Michalski has been co-teaching American government classes with Leinen for five years, watching her get to school early, leave late and go above and beyond to help her students even when it means home visits and extra behind-the-scenes work.
"The kids are her No. 1 priority, so trying to find a way to get the curriculum to the students on a level that they'll understand is her main goal," Michalski said. "She does a really great job with that."
Michalski said Leinen also does well meeting students at their ability level -- a difficult task because of how diverse their classes are.
Leinen hopes to transition into an administrator position in the next stage of her career, combining her passion for teaching with the leadership skills she honed at FedEx. Then, once she retires from the public school system, Leinen wants to go back to academia and train the next generation of teachers.
"There are so many different facets of education," Leinen said. "There's absolutely no reason to get complacent. The challenge for me is raising my own bar. … It makes me excited about the field."