Today, the average person will change their career 5-7 times before finding their calling. However, High Desert Education Service District (HDESD) Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) teacher, Susan Newman, found her calling by the age of 13. “As a teen, I spent my weekends volunteering at a state institution with a young girl who was labeled as ‘mentally challenged,’” Newman said, “As it turned out, she was actually deaf, and just didn’t know how to communicate. From that point forward, my career path was set.”

Identifying a Need

During her time as an educator working with DHH students, Newman found that many times auditory limitations resulted in academic and social hindrances. For example, one of Newman’s students is a boy who struggles with communicating and making friends due to his auditory disadvantage. His story left Newman wondering how she could support not only his language and literacy development, but also his ability to make and keep friends.

That’s when Read With Me was born. As the brainchild of Newman, Read With Me is a simple, affordable and scalable idea that functions as a book club pen-pal program for DHH kids in Central Oregon.

“It is more than kids just sharing literature, writing book reviews and learning how to read and write,” said Newman with conviction, “It’s also about isolated children learning, sharing each other’s strengths and challenges, connecting and building friendships.”

To make this idea a reality, Newman needed help.

Supporting a Solution

By her estimates, it would take just over $4,000 to incubate Read With Me the first year. Luckily, the High Desert Education Service District (HDESD) provides investment funding each year through the internal innovation process, i4Education. As a result, i4 supports new innovative ideas such as Newman’s, that have the potential to increase excellence, equity and efficiency of HDESD services and aims.

“Regardless of rank or authority, educators are empowered to bring their ideas forward through a predictable process,”  said HDESD Director of Innovation, Anna Higgins, “Through this process they receive idea coaching and support from expert entrepreneurs to refine their pitch and test their idea.”

Only about 12 months ago, standing in front of the i4 panel, composed of a business leader, two HDESD staff, one school board member and a local superintendent, Newman pitched her idea.

“Imagine if we could close the gap between kids with DHH and their typically developing peers. The wide gap related to language, communication and friendship building skills. For a relatively low investment, we can prove the impact,” Newman said in her captivating presentation.

Evaluating the Results

Already, the results of Read With Me are incredibly positive. With the help of the HDESD and additional assistance from Barnes and Noble, students involved in the program get to keep the books they read and form lasting friendships. This has directly impacted their learning experience as well, and many of the students have seen significant progress in their reading and relational ability.

“The developmentally challenged student is benefitted by learning the words from a peer, not a teacher. It’s somehow easier now to make mistakes and stumble over words. Two kids connect, they say ‘hi’ to each other in the hallways moving from class to class. A new respect for each other and their disabilities emerges and this creates a ripple effect,” said Newman in regards to the impact she has witness as a result of Read With Me.

Never one to settle, Newman hopes to continue spreading Read With Me across Oregon and beyond with the help of HDESD and other partners that are interested in promoting student success. Additionally, Newman is committed to the student relationships that have been formed among the ten pairs of participants and is planning an event celebrating their success. This will also give the chance for some students to meet face-to-face with their pen-pal for the first time.

Written by: McKenna Boen