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Virginia Journal of Education

Exciting Chapters

An Alexandria reading specialist fights to build her students’ literacy skills.

By Maria Magallanes

Early in my career, when teaching second grade in a Colorado school with children from mostly financially comfortable homes, I had the pleasure of having Remington in my class. He was a smart boy, always happy and kind to others. His mother worried about his reading struggles, and I told her I’d do my best to help Remi. That year I tutored him after school, had him attend two reading groups during the day, and recommended an outside tutor who specialized in reading. But I watched Remi throughout the year as he became frustrated when reading, didn’t want to read, and cried during our district reading test.

That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in reading. I wanted to help students like Remi learn to love to read and to always feel confident in their reading and in themselves. Reading builds confidence. 
Today, I’m a reading specialist in Alexandria at Cora Kelly Elementary School for Math, Science and Technology. Close to 90 percent of students of our students live below the poverty line, 95 percent are minorities, and almost 60 percent are ELLs (English Language Learners). We also house two city-wide programs, one for students with autism and one for students with emotional disabilities. Yet, because of our dedicated staff and resilient students, Cora Kelly has met all federal and state benchmarks for four consecutive years.

Improving reading skills has been an important part of that achievement. Our goal is to help students become proficient readers, but not only that, to love to read, and to do so with confidence. It is so important for every child to gain excellent reading skills, no matter what their socioeconomic status may be. Working in a Title One school with high poverty rates can be challenging because of the sense of urgency to close achievement gaps. Our students face many challenges before they even set foot into our classrooms. Too many times, as a classroom teacher and now as a reading specialist, I’ve seen the joy of reading fade in students’ eyes because they struggle or have been struggling for so long. 

However, I have seen many of our students persevere, work hard and try their best in spite of these challenges. We’ve developed a culture at our school in which we all work together, asking, “What is best for our students?” 

When I began my career, as a kindergarten teacher, I was lucky enough to have many teachers in my family who provided me with resources and ideas to start my first year. One of my aunts gave me an essay she would share with her students’ parents on the first day of school called, “The Transfer of a Trust,” by Susan Wojciechoweski. I also started a tradition of reading it to the parents who stayed in the classroom the first day of school.

The essay deals with a mother’s thoughts on her son’s first day of kindergarten. She sends him on the bus and thinks that at last she can enjoy her cup of tea, read the paper in peace, and not worry about sticky floors or a messy house. But instead she cries, realizing that for the first time she cannot follow her son. She wants to follow him to make sure he doesn’t get picked on by bullies and remembers to take his lunch. Even more, she wants to glimpse into the teacher’s classroom—not to monitor lesson plans or bulletin boards, but to see into the teacher’s soul. She wants reassurance that the teacher, a stranger, is up to the task of helping her child develop. The mother had largely shaped the child’s world until this day.  All at once a teacher, stranger, was taking her place.  

“Would she be so kind as to try to get to know his complex personality, his weaknesses? Would she notice his bad days and on those days treat him ever so gently because he is, after all, not just one of a sea of little bodies – he is special?”

I still get choked up when I read this to parents because I can feel what they’re feeling. I share parts of this essay because teaching is not just some job you get up in the morning to do. You are entrusted with someone’s most precious child. Parents cannot go where their children go but every day they send their children to school with all their hopes and dreams. And we have the important responsibility of recognizing students’ strengths and weaknesses and helping them grow and learn to love learning. 

When I look at my students, I see my own children. As I want want the very best for my children, I want the very best for the students I teach. And if my best is not good enough I will find the best for them.

At the end of that second-grade year in Colorado, Remi’s mother wrote me a note saying, in part: “I remember the poem you read on the first day of school; I left with tears in my eyes but a very happy heart. I knew that for you to even read that poem, you were the person I was okay leaving Remi with.  And you have proved it over and over this year. You are…someone who teaches with her soul. Remi has been the lucky beneficiary of that. I see the love for learning that you have helped him find and I thank you, because to me that is the point of school. So now, on the last day of school I leave with tears in my eyes again because words just can’t say how in debt we are to you for being the best teacher Remi has ever had.”

I felt like I had failed Remi that year because I couldn’t unlock his ability to read. I wish I could have done more, and I will always remember him. Yes, teaching in a high poverty school can be challenging. Remi did not attend a high-poverty school. In fact, he attended the opposite but still struggled with reading. I always go back to every child is precious to someone, no matter where they come from.

Now it is my personal quest to help as many students as I can to believe in themselves through the power of reading. 

Magallanes, a member of the Education Association of Alexandria, is a recipient of a 2015 Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award, given by The Washington Post to excellent teachers in Northern Virginia, District of Columbia and Maryland.


Reading Resources
According to Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), literacy “is essential to fully developing a sense of well-being and citizenship. Children who are solid readers perform better in school, have a healthy self-image, and become lifelong learners, adding to their viability in a competitive world.”

“The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible,” adds the International Reading Association (IRA).

Both organizations offer educators access to resources designed to strengthen student reading skills, such as book lists, lesson plans and classroom activities. Visit RIF at or IRA at


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