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April 4, 2012

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Elizabeth Devlin is a woman whose mission is to help those who are overlooked. She seeks out at-risk girls who, without help, are left to perpetuate a cycle of academic failure and social disdain. While tutoring kids at a community center in a low-income community, she saw first-hand the great divergence between her own upbringing in a house filled with books and reading and the world of her students, where literacy was neither stressed nor valued.

She recounts the story of a girl named Kadijah, a second grader, who viewed reading as an odious chore.  She attempted to avoid it by running around the room and crawling under desks. “I wanted to see if there was something I could do to make reading a positive experience,” says Elizabeth. She decided to change Kadijah’s perspective about reading by changing the environment in which she read.  She moved away from the desk and set up a comfortable spot where she read to Kadijah instead of the other way around. Eventually, Kadijah viewed books in a whole new way and eagerly finished her other schoolwork so as to have more time to read.  

Inspired not only by Kadijah but also by the strong belief that literacy can bridge socioeconomic divides, Elizabeth applied for and won a grant to start a book club for third, fourth, and fifth grade girls called Girl Talk. Her focus on girls stems from her own positive experiences attending an all girls school and also from the belief that girls excel more in a separate gender-learning environment. “Girls tend to be more vulnerable and have lower self-confidence,” says Elizabeth. “They need to be in a place where they feel comfortable expressing themselves.”

After her time tutoring, she began teaching a language arts program for sixth graders. “I saw how truly vulnerable middle school girls were,” continues Elizabeth.  One girl in particular named Jessica struggled with reading comprehension that affected her confidence both academically and socially. She dealt with behavioral issues leading, at times, to suspension. Elizabeth engaged her through books, building her confidence and leading her to a sense of accomplishment and success. As the school year progressed, Jessica began checking books out from the class library and avoiding the poor behaviors that had plagued her in the past. Despite these advances, Jessica still ended up pregnant near the end of the school year. “I realized I needed to do more than help these girls in the class,” says Elizabeth. “That’s when I started the middle school program.”

Now, Elizabeth runs Girl Talk—renamed Page Turners—from her Easton headquarters and directs programs all over the Eastern Shore including Talbot, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico, and Caroline counties as well as programs in Baltimore City. Page Turners currently serves 173 girls through 20 book clubs. Girls are chosen to participate based on a number of criteria. They must be considered at-risk in that they qualify for free and reduced priced meals, they score below proficient in reading on state tests, and are dealing with emotional issues such as low self-confidence.

Sixth through eighth grade girls attend the reading groups in their own schools led by various grade-level teachers in order to foster a sense of school cohesion and involvement. The principal, along with guidance counselors and teachers work together to choose the girls they feel meet the criteria set forth by Page Turners. They then approach the girls, making them feel that they are being asked to join a special group or club. Once in the program, participants demonstrate increased reading skills, develop critical thinking not only about literature but also about the wider world, and embark on a path to graduate from high school and attend college.

Despite Page Turners' great successes, Elizabeth is not one to sit on her laurels, content with her contribution to society. Her sights are set on improving the program and cultivating more community involvement.  She is hoping to engage adult book clubs. “I want to develop a pen pal program where the adults and the girls would read the same book then write to each other to discuss it,” says Elizabeth.

“I also hope to implement a Community Champion position where we connect to local businesses to help apply the books the girls read to the real world,” she continues.  One book Page Turner groups read discussed a girl getting out of her neighborhood and going to college.  “We’d love to take the girls to a college,” Elizabeth says. “We need help from a volunteer to coordinate trips like that.”

Those who are proficient readers benefit from personal, social, and professional advantages according to a study done by The National Endowment for the Arts.  The same study showed that those who are deficient readers are disadvantaged in all three areas. By spearheading the effort to engage at-risk girls in reading for pleasure as well as for future success, Elizabeth Devlin is changing the statistics one page at a time.

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April 4, 2012

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I was so inspired by Elizabeth and her accomplishments that last year I joined the Page Turners board. We are always looking for community involvement to help us extend the program. Find us on line at www.pageturnersread.org

barbara viniar more than 1 years ago

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