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S.L. elementary principal declares war on illiteracy

SHARE S.L. elementary principal declares war on illiteracy

Ernie Nix, principal of Jackson Elementary School, has declared war — on illiteracy.

Nix, who didn't learn to read until seventh grade, believes teachers can make a difference in students' lives, because it was teachers who made a difference in his.

"Education is the key. And the key to education is reading," Nix said.

Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City has already benefited from Nix's efforts. Last year, Nix served as interim principal at Northwest.

He took the opportunity to test the reading skills of the students, 60 percent of whom scored below the average reading level for their ages.

A literacy task force was set up at the school to combat the problem, and staff members worked with Susan Gardner, a professor at Westminster College. Gardner, who specializes in contentary reading, trained teachers to stress reading skills in all subjects.

Nix decided to back up the new program with a challenge.

Students were asked to read 5,000 books between January and May, and teachers were asked to read 500 as an example to students.

The program was a success. "There was an overall change in (students') attitude toward reading," Nix said. "They loved it."

Nix, now principal of Jackson Elementary in Salt Lake City, plans on implementing reading programs on a younger level as well. He said his staff has been more than willing to encourage reading, and the early years are the best time to do it.

Why the war? Why the passion for reading?

"It opened up the world for me," Nix said about learning to read. "I want to do the same for my students."

Nix grew up in El Paso, Texas. He was born to teenage parents, who "never quite grew up," he said.

His home life was unpleasant as a child. His mother struggled with mental health issues, and his parents were abusive toward each other and their children.

His "at-risk" childhood not only hurt his body and self-esteem but hurt his desire to learn.

"There was zero emphasis placed on reading in my home," Nix said. In fact, Nix doesn't think his mother could read, and his father couldn't read well. "I never saw them reading a book."

Nix struggled in school. He stuttered. He couldn't write well. And although he could recognize some words, he had trouble making the connection between the words.

He still remembers the name of the lowest reading group he was placed in as a child, the Blackbirds, and he remembers how he hated school.

Because of Nix's home life, his mother was constantly pulling him in and out of school. Teachers just seemed to give up on him. It wasn't until seventh grade that an English teacher took Nix "under her wing," he said.

She took an interest in his education and helped him take an interest as well. He was placed into reading and speech programs. He started with the basics and worked his way up.

Nix also went to live with his grandmother around that time, and with her loving support, and his "caring" teachers, he enjoyed learning and decided he wanted to be a teacher.

It was hard, but with constant pushing from teachers into his high school years, Nix ended up going to college and received a bachelor's degree in mathematics.

He taught math and physics for 10 years at the high school level and went on to receive a master's degree in education administration.

It is as an administrator that Nix thinks he can have the greatest impact. "I'm a real believer in creating a caring, nurturing environment for students and staff," he said.

Nix feels his background helps him relate to the Jackson students. He understands their trials, and he and his staff are dedicated to keep them from "falling through the cracks."

But they can't do it alone. Nix strongly encourages parents to read to their children and get involved at the schools. "A child's education is a partnership between the teacher and the parent," he said.

Even today, Nix struggles with his writing skills. He knows triumphing over illiteracy is a long road; he's been down it. But Nix wants students and adults to know it's never too late to begin.

"People can overcome. But it takes help along the way," he said.

E-MAIL: jcheney@desnews.com