A League of Their Own: RLA alumni band together to offer top-tier professional development

see caption
RLA alumni gather with their mentor, Trustee Professor Emerita Benita
Blachman (8th from left) at the fall 2019 Reading League Conference in
Syracuse, NY.

In 2015, Maria Murray G’96, G’09 was on the precipice of giving up her 20-year career in education to move to Kentucky to pursue a new life as an alpaca farmer. “I decided I was going to leave the whole education world because it was too discouraging,” she says.

However, Murray stumbled upon a book that changed her life and derailed her plans to move: Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, by David Kilpatrick ’94. “In chapter one, he laid out all the reasons why the science and the knowledge that we have from forty years of research isn’t happening in classrooms,” Murray explains. “I called him and said, let’s get together and talk.”

Kilpatrick accepted and, as Murray puts it, “That was the day the Reading League was born.” Murray began by thinking through her academic network and easily came up with over 100 educators and researchers, many of whom were also School of Education alums, many of whom had at one point struggled to help students learn to read or teach reading, and all of whom were interested in pursuing efforts to bring the science of reading into classrooms. One of Murray’s first calls was to Trustee Professor Emerita Benita Blachman, her former professor and an internationally recognized and frequently cited science researcher whose life’s work has been to discover ways to prevent reading difficulty and remediate it. During her time at Syracuse University, Blachman taught and mentored many of the educators who would come to form The Reading League.

Murray’s next call was to Heidi Beverine-Curry G’16, now The Reading League’s vice president for professional development. At the time she was experiencing her own frustrations working as a literacy coach, consultant, and adjunct professor trying to build bridges between reading research and instructional practice.

With the main players in place and a robust group of researchers and educators acting as advisory members, The Reading League incorporated as a nonprofit in 2016 with the stated mission of advancing the awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-based reading instruction. Murray took the helm as CEO and president. In action, the organization began taking shape by providing free live professional development events presented by literacy experts to mainly elementary educators on a bi-monthly basis.

In January of 2016, The Reading League held their first live event. One hundred and thirty educators showed up for a 2.5 hour evening course in a snowstorm. “We struck a vein,” explains Murray.

Since 2016, The Reading League has held nineteen free events attended by over 3,400 educators.

To illustrate the reasons for the intense demand from educators, The Reading League created a roundtable discussion video. As Murray points out, “Even here in Central New York, up to 70 percent of our students aren’t proficient readers.” As Beverine-Curry explains, the reason why the scientific research around reading instruction isn’t being taught in-depth to fledgling educators-in-training is because, “generally that research is happening mainly in other disciplines such as linguistics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, or speech and language pathology.” Murray explains, “You can’t learn everything in your training. Schools of education can do what they can and then it’s up to
professional development to be ongoing once you’re teaching.”

The Reading League partners with nine school districts in Onondaga and Oswego Counties, providing professional development services in literacy education to the more than 900 teachers, specialists and teaching assistants that serve their elementary schools. The Reading League equips them with a team of 20 literacy coaches that are in the district’s schools every week to help educators implement their training.

Last fall, The Reading League held its Third Annual Conference of The Reading League. Each year the conference has doubled in size and this year nearly 1000 researchers, practitioners, and educators attended, from as far away as Australia.

The future is looking bright for The Reading League. With a recent gift endowment of over $9 million from Rowland Reading Foundation and support from a handful of other local foundations, The Reading League will continue to expand its footprint, starting locally with the recent opening of a new office space in downtown Syracuse that houses a state-of-the-art teaching facility. Next on the docket will be to take The Reading League national and then international. Murray shares that, “in five to ten years we want a Reading League in all 50 states.”