April Nielsen—better known as Ms. April on the McCarthey Campus—feels like the luckiest woman in the world.
“I literally have been able to create my dream job,” she said.
April is wrapping up her first year as Rowland Hall’s literary and academic support specialist, a role that lets her partner with kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers to ensure that students are reading at grade level. She designed the position in partnership with the beginning and lower school teams as an extra layer of support during the crucial years in which reading skills are built.
Reading is the foundation for everything.
“Reading is the foundation for everything,” April explained. “It’s been shown that when kids fall behind in reading, it’s really hard for them to catch up without extra strategic support.”
With a master’s degree in literacy and diversity—including both Level 1 and Level 2 reading endorsements that qualify her to work as a reading specialist in Utah—and 17 years of experience as a first-grade teacher in the Lower School, April is the ideal person to help Rowland Hall continue to shape our literacy program in ways that meet students’, and their families’, evolving needs. While the school has always had a system in place for students who need extra reading support, April has formalized the approach to assessing students, identifying those who need that support, and keeping teachers and tutors informed of their progress. She has spent the year poring over reading assessment data, creating spreadsheets to individualize class instruction, devoting hours to teacher training, and working with students in small, focused groups.
And while April’s role makes her an asset to faculty, she truly shines with students. She makes it a point to bring classes into her literacy lab at the beginning of the year for a story and to familiarize them with the lab, and she can often be found there doing everything from working with grade-level reading groups to holding monthly check-ins with every first grader (“because first grade is when you put everything together,” she explained). Her warm, approachable demeanor and obvious passion for her work makes students excited to spend time with her.
“The first grade students love working with April,” said teacher Galen McCallum. “When April walks in my classroom, the students moan if they have to wait their turn to go to the literacy lab and repeatedly ask when they will have a turn to read with Ms. April.”
April’s connection to students stems in part from her experience supporting a daughter with learning challenges—in fact, it was this experience that sparked her desire to study literacy. And having successfully guided her own child through those challenges (April’s daughter is now a voracious reader), she understands what children are capable of, and she approaches her work as a partnership with students, teachers, and families—and it’s working.
“The combination of whole class, small groups, and individual instruction have strengthened the overall literacy experience this year,” said Galen.
For someone who understands the many ways that reading opens doors, watching her young students succeed is the ultimate job perk—one that April wants to share as widely as possible.
“The richness and beauty of everything can be in a book,” she said. “I really want to give that gift to everybody.”
We asked Ms. April a few reflection questions about her experiences this year. Here’s what she had to share.
Looking back on your first year as the literacy and academic support specialist, what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud that I was able to see a need and then figure out ways to fill it. I wanted to provide extra support to build community and communication with teachers, tutors, and families, and I really wanted to make coming to the literacy lab fun, joyful, and productive. I feel like we’ve been able to accomplish that—when I look at the data, I can see how much kids have grown. It’s kind of mind-boggling when you think about a student who started reading at Level I and is now reading independently at Level M.* That's huge growth! The progress has been exciting.
What are you looking forward to next year?
I’m really excited to continue to build on this work we’ve started to help kids. I’m excited to keep supporting teachers. We’re really moving towards more consistency in our program. We know where we want to go and we know how to get there, and we’re on that path.
What does it feel like to watch a kid break through their reading challenges?
It’s the best feeling of the year. They have such a sense of pride—they’re just beaming. They cracked this code and this whole new world is opening up for them.
What can parents and caregivers do at home to support kids?
The single best thing you can do is read to your child every day.
The single best thing you can do is read to your child every day. It should be fun and joyful, whether it’s sitting in the backyard under a tree or snuggled up in bed. And even after your child can read, it’s really important to continue that family ritual. Not only is it bonding for families, but you have shared stories and things to reference. Those conversations help build children’s listening comprehension, which then can transfer to reading comprehension as they’re reading on their own. Without even realizing it, you are laying this foundation in your child’s brain for not only language, but plots, characters, and vocabulary, and you’re opening windows into other experiences, cultures, and worlds, and building empathy. You’re establishing a love of reading.
*Rowland Hall utilizes the Fountas and Pinnell reading scale in our literacy program. You can learn more about grade-level reading goals here.