Peoria Unified School District Students Take the First Step on Read Better Be Better’s Pathway to Becoming Future Teachers

Written by Wendy White, Read Better Be Better Advocate

three students smile at the camera while doing programWhen 15-year-old Kaydence Bonamo was in 3rd grade, reading did not come easily to her.

“But my mom worked with me and she also got me involved in a Barnes & Noble book club for 3rd graders,” she says.

With the extra help, her reading steadily improved and, by the time Kaydence was in 5th grade, she was reading at an 8th-grade level. She also developed an interest in becoming a teacher. So, when the sophomore at Cactus High School heard from her guidance counselor that Read Better Be Better (RBBB) was piloting its new Pathways to the Education Profession (PEP) program and looking for high school age Program Coach Assistants to help 3rd graders improve their reading in the organization’s afterschool program, Kaydence applied.

“The feeling I had as a 3rd grader when I finally ‘got’ how to read is indescribable and something I wanted to help other children achieve,” she explains.

And she has done so this semester with the 25 students in both 3rd grade and middle school with whom she meets twice-a-week at Foothills Elementary School. Under the supervision of an RBBB Program Coach, Kaydence supports the 3rd-grade Readers and their middle school Leaders as the older students read with the younger students to improve comprehension, concentration, and the enjoyment of reading.

Kaydence is one of 8 students from the Peoria Unified School District (PUSD) to embark on the first step of RBBB’s PEP program. Funded by a three-year grant from the Helios Education Foundation that partners RBBB and the PUSD, PEP is developing a grow-your-own teacher pipeline that provides high school students with teaching experience as Program Coach Assistants, encourages these students to pursue education degrees, and hires them as paid RBBB Program Coaches while they’re in college. The goal is that these students will then return to teach in the PUSD, which is Kaydence’s goal as well. Her plan is to teach either elementary or middle school in the PUSD, the district in which she’s being raised and attending school.

The grow-your-own teacher model is a viable solution to the severe and ongoing teacher shortage in Arizona. According to a 2021 survey of 145 districts and charter schools by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, these districts and schools had 6,559 open teaching positions at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. For the sixth year in a row, the 145 districts and schools were unable to fill more than 25% of those vacancies a month into the school year and, of the vacancies they were able to fill, 55% were by teachers who do not meet Arizona’s standard certification requirements. The chronic teacher shortage has its roots in Arizona’s historically low teacher pay, which ranks last in the nation, leading to a consistently unstable workforce that continues to erode the quality of education in a state that ranks 47th in the country for K-12 schools.

“Read Better Be Better has already proven the success of engaging young people as educators early in their academic career. The PEP model provides an opportunity to reinforce that message—the added bonus that these high schoolers have lived experience of the community in which they are working. They are closer to the kids in our classrooms and can engage them with a sensitivity and confidence that is incredibly powerful. They will be remarkable leaders when they return to the classroom as teachers,” explains RBBB CEO and Founder Sophie Allen-Etchart.

The PEP Program Coach Assistants work 40 hours during the semester and receive 10 additional hours of professional development training to foster skills in classroom management, curriculum facilitation, and student empowerment, among others. They also receive half an elective class credit.

“I’ve learned a lot about problem-solving in the moment as well as patience,” says Kaydence. She cites an instance when she had to employ both skills at the same time to deal with a 3rd grader who was having difficulty focusing one afternoon. “I used techniques I learned in RBBB training to offer him a stretch break and a snack. I also talked with him. After that he was completely fine. He even hugged me,” she says.

The introduction of the Program Coach Assistant positions has been welcomed by the Program Coaches who oversee them.

“The Program Coach Assistants add so much to this program. They provide ideas, help with classroom management, and since they are often closer in age with the leaders, they can emotionally connect with our older students very well,” says Carissa Puzzo, Kaydence’s Program Coach at Foothills Elementary School. “Kaydence is a fantastic assistant. She has brought innovative ideas to program, often coming up with creative solutions to problems. She also has wonderful classroom management skills, which helps me keep program running smoothly.”

Over the course of the semester, Kaydence has been excited to see the growth that the 3rd graders have made in their reading abilities and the confidence the middle schoolers have gained in themselves and their leadership skills.

a group of students working through curriculum in an orientation meeting

“This is a super cool program because kids are teaching other kids. The middle school kids have formed really strong bonds with their 3rd graders. It’s great to watch how excited the Readers are to see their Leaders and vice versa,” she explains. “The way the Leaders have taken over and guided the 3rd graders is so amazing to see. Now the 3rd graders are sounding out words and reading quicker and more efficiently. I’m proud of how far they all have come.”

Kaydence’s students have expressed to her that they still have much more to achieve. After sharing with the students her own experience as a struggling reader who eventually was able to read above grade level, the 3rd graders were inspired by their teacher-in-training to set a goal that they’re determined to reach.

“They want to beat my reading at an 8th grade level in 5th grade,” she says. “They told me they’re all going to be reading at a high school level by the time they’re 5th graders.”