When 11-year-old Kieran O'Donnell decided he wanted to learn how to read in Grade 5, he went at it with a vengeance.
The Chilliwack student had arrived in veteran teacher Dave Clyne's District Resource Program in the fall of 2004, and he'd been told there would be homework every night for the next three months.
After six years of getting almost no homework at school, O'Donnell took his new responsibility very seriously.
"He was very precise," his mom Tracy said. "First everything had to be quiet and it had to be set up the right way and everything had to be lined up exactly right. By the time he would get that organized, an hour would go by. Then he'd be doing his math drill, and if he didn't do it nice and neat, he'd have to start all over again."
It drove her crazy, and Clyne eventually had to put a limit on O'Donnell's homework time, but to Tracy it was a good sign.
The now-defunct Intermediate District Resource Program was once housed at McCammon and Watson elementary schools and was designed to help Grade 4 to 6 students with serious reading, writing and math problems.
Every three months it took in a new group of six kids, who attended the program four days a week, spending Fridays at their home schools.
Clyne had been the teacher in charge for nearly six years by the time O'Donnell arrived, and his group would be the last he would teach before retiring.
Building on methods devised by the program's founder, Bali Stein, Clyne and Frost worked to equip students with skills and strategies regular students pick up almost without thinking about them.
Clyne calls them "invisible skills," like knowing which letters and combinations of letters go with which sounds and how to put them all together to figure out a word.
"It takes a lot of patience on the teacher's part. It takes a lot of patience on the child's and the parent's part to be consistent with this," Clyne said.
With patience and hard work, though, he'd never met a student who didn't catch on eventually-until O'Donnell.
O'Donnell had come into the program with serious language deficits and memory problems, and by the end of two months he was still having to sound out words like "want" letter by letter even if he had sounded out the same word just a line before.
After two months, Clyne and Frost had almost concluded O'Donnell was one kid who might not be able to learn, when things started to click.
"It was the beginning of December, the third month, that something started to settle in," Clyne said. "His invisible skills, those little skills started coming together."
O'Donnell was starting to recognize words without having to sound them out; he was starting to read.
But time was running out, and Clyne feared his young charge's breakthrough wouldn't survive in a regular classroom without extra support.
His concerns were echoed by trustee Silvia Dyck.
At the end of every session, Clyne and Frost invited school trustees into the program for a little fun reading with graduating students, and a core group-Dyck, former trustee Diane Janzen, Martha Wiens and (later) Heather Maahs- routinely took them up on the offer.
After reading with O'Donnell, Dyck pulled Clyne aside and said, "Dave, this boy isn't ready to go back."
Clyne said he knew but that he didn't have a choice; he wasn't allowed to keep students in the program longer than three months.
Later, a talk with O'Donnell's classroom teacher did little to allay Clyne's concerns.
"I mentioned casually that Kieran obviously needed to get learning assistance to reinforce these skills, and they said, 'Well, unfortunately there's other kids who need it as much or more, who haven't been to the resource program."
Without extra help, Clyne predicted O'Donnell's emerging skills (and probably his best chance at ever learning to read) would evaporate within a month.
But by Christmas break, O'Donnell was back in his regular classroom and Clyne had left the district to enter his hard-earned retirement.
It didn't last long. After 38 years of teaching, Clyne's pedagogical curiosity soon got the better of him.
He'd never had a chance to work with a student after he or she left the program.
What if he did? The pieces lined up perfectly. Clyne and O'Donnell both lived in Cultus Lake, and Clyne decided to start volunteering at Cultus Lake community school a couple days a week just to keep O'Donnell's newfound reading skills moving forward.
Neither could have predicted their partnership would span the next eight years-summers included.
For O'Donnell's mom, who had envisioned a bleak future for her son if he didn't learn to read, it seemed almost too good to be true.
"It felt like a miracle had dropped in our laps," she said. "Dave is amazing."
But it takes a village to raise a child, Clyne insists, and the next eight years would see teachers, administrators and even school trustees all play a part in O'Donnell's success.
SERIES AT A GLANCE
? Part 1 - After six years in school, a student is determined to learn how to read
? Part 2 - A return to the regular classroom threatens a fragile beginning
? Part 3 - A partnership between a student and teacher overcomes tough odds
? See part three in this series in Tuesday's Chilliwack Times.
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