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Long road to reading

Literacy program leader knows from her own experience how struggling with reading spells trouble

When literacy program leader Jackie Powell surveys the sea of struggling readers in Utah schools, she sees a hauntingly familiar face adrift in shame and doubt.

Herself.

"I couldn't read growing up, and it's had a profound impact on my entire life," said Powell, tutor coordinator for the "I Can Read" program, part of the Utah Reads initiative in the Utah Office of Education.

Who better to understand the frustration, humiliation and long-term effects on adult life than someone who dropped out of school in the ninth grade, then gritted out a University of Utah psychology degree while raising eight children, en route to 29 grandchildren?

"Because of my experience with illiteracy, I do believe I feel what most children feel dealing with the devastating effects of not learning to read. It has made me pretty passionate on the subject, sometimes even pushy," said Powell, 50, who has seen "I Can Read" flourish in approximately 300 schools since taking her post in August 1999.

The program was envisioned 10 years ago by Utahn Kay Warner, now in Virginia on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with her husband. It was nourished and spread by Roseanne Bowman, a devoted reading recovery teacher at Salt Lake's Washington Elementary School. She not only has taught "I Can Read," but tirelessly gathered grant money to help realize Warner's dream that the program must be free to schools.

When Warner left for her mission, she wanted to make sure things were left in good hands. She recognized the strong, loving and capable ones of Powell.

But it took a long time for Powell to comprehend the depth of her gifts.

"That's how illiteracy works. You spend years telling yourself you're dumb, even if you're not," Powell said.

Born in Colorado, Powell quickly got the message she was a bust at school, growing up in the Moab and Green River areas.

"I just didn't ever really catch on to reading," she said. "I was either told directly I was stupid or was asked, 'Haven't I already told you that a thousand times?' which is about the same."

She failed nearly every subject except algebra because a strict teacher would not let her quit until he made sure she understood the problems. Then her naturally sharp mind took over and she made B-pluses.

Everything else, zilch.

"Even today, I'm not sure my mind will allow me to express the emotional stress," she said.

The easiest thing was to butt out. She left school and got married at 15.

This is where such a story usually segues into the nearly inevitable divorce a few years and kids later. In this case, Sleeping Beauty awoke to her natural talents, partly because the guy she married happened to be an actual Prince Charming.

He is Jesse Powell, now a retired highway patrolmen and her husband of 39 years.

"Jesse has been my lifesaver. He always treated me like I was the smartest person he ever saw," Jackie said, wiping tears. "I could ask him how to spell something, and he'd help me like it was no big deal. I hadn't experienced that at school or home."

Determined to make something of herself, Jackie studied 10 hours a day on weekends, and passed the test to become an emergency medical technician. After serving 10 years as an EMT, she sought bigger rescue missions. Her education.

She wanted to get her high school diploma. The then-principal said she was short three credits — physical education, health and home economics — and couldn't earn them. She appealed to the school board.

"I told them I thought being married 15, 16 years and raising eight kids gave me a little training in home ec. Working 10 years as an EMT ought to count for something in health. And a friend of mine and I started tee-ball and softball leagues for girls, who didn't have those kinds of things back then. Didn't that qualify me in phys ed?" she said.

The board awarded her the diploma in '79. She was 32.

When Jesse moved to a patrol division in Salt Lake City, Jackie got an associate's degree from Salt Lake Community College. Then she threw herself into four more years to get her degree from the U.

"I cried every day, it was so hard," she said. But she wouldn't give in. She got her degree in 1997. She was 50.

Partly that's because she forced herself also to put in 400 hours earning a service learning scholar award. That involved doing technical writing for different companies.

"It's how I learn, by doing," she said.

Powell came out of the U. determined to "change the world" and worked as a VISTA volunteer in food banks and in the psychology ward at a veterans hospital.

Then she heard about "I Can Read" and attended a seminar.

"I was so touched. I saw for the first time how I could've been a good reader back in school. And I saw how much I still can learn," she said.

Despite her achievements, she still has a long way to go as a reader, she feels. There's a window of learning opportunity, she says, when we're young — like a satellite dish perfectly positioned to receive signals. After that it becomes manifestly harder.

"I still have to make myself get through this book for instance," she said, tapping the "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Readers" text her program uses. "I work every day to implement 'I Can Read' principles, and they help me."

A program relying heavily on one-to-one tutoring and finding alternative teaching keys, "I Can Read" also has taught about her strengths and weaknesses.

"I saw for the first time that I am strong-minded and good at remembering concepts. I'm terrible at poetry. I never can get the hang of it," she said.

From the time they were dating, Jesse read to her from "1,000 of the World's Most Famous Poems."

"Some day I want to be able to read Robert Frost back to him," Jackie said.

It will be a milestone on a beautiful road less traveled to get there.


E-MAIL: gtwyman@desnews.com