Since 2016, Ball State professors and students have helped at-risk youths improve reading skills, with the hope for success beyond the classroom. The knowledge the faculty mentors, Ruth Jefferson, ’73 MAE ’78 EdD ’81, and Janay Sander, PhD, are gleaning might help other communities.

Through an immersive learning experience, Ball State students work with residents of the Youth Opportunity Center (YOC), a Muncie residential treatment center for children involved in the court system, including cases of child abuse and neglect as well as juvenile justice. Called TEAM 2, the Ball State group is contributing to a larger study, funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), on psychological, environmental, and cultural factors that relate to court involvement.

“Reading is a huge challenge and barrier to life success for many youth in the court systems,” said Sander, associate professor of educational psychology. “The research question is tied to that — if we catch them up in skills, will this help them be successful after they return home to their communities and schools? We are working on gathering that data.”

Opening doors

YOC students participate voluntarily, and they have become more confident and their behavior improves.

“The enrolled youth have a safe place to read and learn without the worry of being judged for not knowing words or reading slowly,” said Nikolaus Sloan, ’10, YOC support services director. “We’ve seen youth develop an interest in reading outside of the program. This is a very effective tool that allows us to better serve our youth educationally, which then opens the door for improved outcomes once leaving YOC.”

TEAM 2 students from a variety of majors use established, evidence-based techniques to improve reading, and YOC youth have made remarkable progress in the four-month periods they work together, Sander and Jefferson said.

books at YOC

“Reading is a huge challenge and barrier to life success for many youth in the court systems,” said Janay Sander, associate professor of educational psychology.

“The unique aspects of this particular project include the close, supervised, and highly collaborative relationship our students build with the at-risk youth,” Sander said. “They are still just teens, no matter their challenges, and mostly just want to connect, be around young adults who are a positive and supportive role model — and in that role, our students really shine.

“Generally, the youth in the project express amazement at having completed a book from cover to cover, perhaps for the first time in their life. Some of them smile like they just got a new car when we hand them a book they want to read.”

Abby Reiff, ’17, the program’s graduate assistant, is pursuing her EdS degree to become a school psychologist. She got involved in the project in 2016 to get experience in research and work with children in a residential setting.

A blossoming collaboration

“Honestly, I don’t think I could have gained this great of an overall experience anywhere else,” she said. “I learned that the students at the YOC are, for the most part, really great kids who have just had some tough things happen to them or have made some poor choices. These students’ effort, respect, and genuine willingness to try to improve their reading skills impressed me and changed my view of this population.”

She also learned these students “simply have not had the academic opportunity to work on their reading. Often they have switched schools several times and as a result are behind in several academic areas.”

The NIJ grant funded reading groups run through Spring 2018, and researchers will submit final reports in December. However, the program may continue through the Fall with Muncie Community Schools for some students in need.

“Continuing there is a good thing for everyone,” said Jefferson, associate professor of special education. “Our students benefit from the hands-on nature of the work for an entire semester. They really see YOC residents blossom. Anytime the University collaborates like this, it’s a lovely thing.”