Weather Forecast


Waubun 8th-grader is national success story

Reading has always been extremely tough for Sequoyah Tonihka, an eighth grader at Waubun High School.

“I was probably around 10 when I realized I had fallen behind,” said Sequoyah. “The teacher would call on me to read out loud and I didn’t understand most of the words.”

Calling it “frustrating and embarrassing,” Sequoyah adapted as best he could to avoid the spotlight.

“I would stay really quiet and not do anything to distract people in class so that I wouldn’t be noticed, because then I thought maybe the teacher wouldn’t call on me to read,” he said, adding that sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

“My mom hired tutors to try to help me and I went to a reading room at the school, but I was already so far behind,” he said, adding that he was sure he’d never catch up.

Although he dreamed of going to a military academy to become an officer, his goal seemed unattainable.

By the time Sequoyah reached the seventh grade last year, testing revealed that he was only reading at a second grade level, according to special education teacher, Lisa Wierschke.

Wierschke has worked in the Waubun school district for 10 years.  She is employed by BRIC, or the  Bemidji Regional Interdistrict Council, an educational  co-op that places special education teachers in schools throughout the region.

In the fall of 2011, BRIC gave Wierschke the task of implementing a new program at Waubun that worked with Scholastic, the publishing company known for its educational materials.

The program is called “Read 180.”

“It’s an intensive reading intervention program meant to accelerate students learning and help them catch up to their peers,” said Wierschke, who started last year with 27 students in fifth through 11th grade, all of whom had demonstrated needs in reading.

Sequoyah was one of them, and he was about to find out that this was no ordinary reading class, and there was no messing around.

“The class is 90 minutes every day,” said Wierschke, “When students come into the class, there is no slack time; the whole time they are engaged and they are working hard.

“There’s no student in the back sitting here being overlooked.”

The students start with 20 minutes of a full group lesson, and then go to three 20-minute rotations including small group work, computer software customized for each student and independent reading.

It begins with phonics work that teaches the students to actually read words; it then continues into a more in-depth program that concentrates on comprehension to ensure the students understand the words they are reading.

It’s one and a half hours of pure, intense reading instruction every single school day.

For a teacher like Wierschke, seeing what she calls “incredible changes” in students has been rewarding.

“You look at some of the kids who have experienced so much failure in reading and feel like they’ll never ever get to where their peers are,” said Wierschke, “and then once they start to see they’re making progress, a lot of times their whole attitude will change … their confidence increases and it’s like a key to opening a new door for them.”

Wierschke says most students will show three to four years of growth in only a year.

This was the case for Sequoyah, who went from reading at a second grade level at the beginning of last year, to reading proficiently at an eighth grade level today. 

“Now when the teachers call on me to read, I know all the words … even some that my classmates don’t know,” said Sequoyah, who worked so hard at improving that Wierschke nominated him for a Scholastic All Star award.

Out of hundreds of nominees, Sequoyah was chosen as one of only 12 students nationwide, becoming the first in Minnesota to bring home the award and the $1,200 that accompanies it.

Scholastic will be presenting the young achiever with the check at a presentation at the school on May 24.

Sequoyah says he now finally thinks about the future in a positive way, believing his goals for his future can be achieved.  It’s a life shift Wierschke says often happens when a student realizes they do not have to be stuck behind.

“Before, maybe they never allowed themselves to think about goals or college or what they want to become someday,” she said.

“But once they see themselves being successful, they start thinking about their dreams and what it is they want in life.”