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Teacher of the Year 1
Literacy teacher Melanie Hurley does a reading assessment with Knollwood Elementary student Gunnar Leach. Hurley is Rapid City's Teacher of the Year. (Steve McEnroe, Journal staff)

RAPID CITY - As a child, a reading assignment could drive Melanie Hurley to tears. Now, she spends her days teaching youngsters to read and other teachers how to teach reading.

The Rapid City Public School Foundation will honor Hurley, Golden Apple recipients Amelia Rose, Gwen Pequette and Paul Hendry, along with 17 Teachers of Distinction, with a reception from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday in the lobby of Wells Fargo Bank at 825 St. Joseph St. An awards program will take place at 6 p.m.

The Teacher of the Year program is sponsored by the Rapid City Public School Foundation, Rapid City Journal, Western Dakota Insurers, Black Hills Gold by Coleman and Liberty Chrysler Center.

The Rapid City Public School Foundation has administered and provided financial support for Teacher of the Year for the past 10 years, according to foundation director Sharon Lee.

To celebrate the program's tenth anniversary, Lee has invited all former Teachers of the Year to attend Tuesday's event.

"Nothing is more enlightening and exciting than to interview these teachers and find out all the wonderful things they do in their classrooms and what makes them an example of the best we find in the teaching profession," Lee said. "Rapid City is fortunate to have so many truly outstanding teachers in its schools."

Hurley, a literacy teacher and teacher leader at Knollwood Elementary School, was named the 2005 Teacher of the Year last spring.

Hurley, who graduated with honors from Black Hills State University in 1998, was enrolled in a graduate course before she learned that she has dyslexia.

Although she now reads fluently, such things as writing a note or learning a new word will always be difficult.

"Dyslexia is always something you have," Hurley said. "It affects your life throughout the entire day."

When Hurley looks at printed words, letters are reversed or mirrored, she said. "And I write that way, too."

That's why she doesn't give people handwritten notes. Everything is first hand-written, then typed and checked and double-checked.

Although she has learned to "de-flip" all those confusing images so she can read, it has been a long road.

"Reading is an extremely complex task," Hurley says. "Learning how to read is different for every kid, and the steps are different for every kid."

Hurley was tested in elementary school for a learning disability, but tests never identified her problem. Schools don't routinely test struggling children for dyslexia, and it's difficult to identify, she said. Most dyslexics have very high IQ's, and they learn to compensate, Hurley said.

Hurley says her parents, Jim and Sherry Hurley, refused to give up on their daughter or let her give up on herself.

"It was devastatingly difficult as a child. I think I cried every single night from kindergarten through twelfth grade," Hurley said. "To have something that you can't find a way to conquer was just so humiliating and frustrating."

The Hurleys' solution was memorization. With her parents' help, she memorized "everything." Her parents bought textbooks and established a nightly routine of reading to her and helping her memorize her assignments.

"I was a pro at faking it," Hurley said. She graduated from Stevens High School in 1993, and although reading and writing were still daunting tasks, she was determined to become a teacher.

In college, Hurley went to her professors and arranged to take oral exams. It was a hand-written assignment for a graduate class that prompted a professor to suggest a test for dyslexia.

The results were the "ah hah" she was looking for her whole life, Hurley said. It confirmed there was a reason for her reading difficulty.

And now, she is studying to earn a master's degree in reading.

"It's a personal goal to achieve mastery in something that was tremendously difficult for me," she said.

The course work will help her make sure that another student doesn't "slip through" and not learn to read.

"That's my role as a reading teacher, to find the way for every student that I encounter to be able to be a reader," Hurley said.

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Hurley's colleagues respect her commitment. When they nominated her for Teacher of the Year, they described her as a "dynamic and dedicated educator who spends endless hours researching and perfecting her craft."

"She will work and work and work to reach a child who is having difficulties with learning," Karen Latuchie, a literacy teacher at Knollwood, said. "No child is left behind in the classrooms that Melanie works in."

As a literacy teacher, Hurley goes into third-grade classrooms and works with classroom teachers to develop students' reading and writing skills.

"Melanie has a passion for literacy and is continually learning more about how to effectively teach children to read and write," Latuchie said. "She very quickly brings her learning into the classroom in order to impact our students."

Hurley also draws upon her own experiences to identify students who are frustrated and having problems reading and writing.

By simply watching their eyes, she can sometimes understand "what they're seeing and thinking and how they're feeling," she said.

"It's like this window into their struggles."

Hurley says her job is to find a way for every student to become a reader. The drive that kept her up late at night memorizing line after line of her textbooks is the same stubbornness that she uses to approach helping a child master reading.

Every child is capable of learning to read. It's her job to find each child's strengths and help them build a foundation of skills to learn, she said.

"It's exciting to watch students ignite this love and passion for learning when they came at complete frustration and overwhelmed with the notion that 'I can't read, and I'm not going to be able to,'" Hurley said.

After college, Hurley taught at Knollwood before taking a job as a literacy coordinator at a charter school in Colorado. She returned to Rapid City and taught for one semester at Horace Mann Elementary School. She has been a literacy teacher at Knollwood for the past two years.

Hurley said the Rapid City School District is unique. At a time when other districts cut programs to save money, the district continues its commitment to students with literacy and math programs that give students more individualized attention.

"The district is so far above and beyond (other school districts)," she said. "It has a global perspective, and we're on the cutting edge with literacy and math. Students come first."

The district's commitment is paying off, Hurley said. Student achievement is improving.

At Knollwood, the staff learned in August that students scored high enough for two consecutive years to take the school off the state's school improvement list.

"It's confirming to know that your efforts make a difference," Hurley said.

It also confirms what the research shows, that teachers, especially well-trained teachers, can have an impact, she said.

As a literacy teacher and someone who knows how difficult reading can be, Hurley is committed to helping children discover the joy of reading. She keeps up on the latest in research, has written case studies and shares information with other teachers.

Hurley said she loves working with the families that Knollwood serves and the school's staff. Everyone at the school is devoted to education, she said.

"I'm not any different than they are," Hurley said. "We all work together and do everything we can possibly do to make this an awesome school."

This summer, Hurley started a new program at Knollwood. She spent two days a week at school running a summer reading program. More than 300 students dropped in to spend an hour reading and to check out books from the library. Some students read as many as 24 books.

The readers could earn an ice cream party for their classrooms by meeting a reading goal of 12 books. Hurley said she will be "broke" by the time she hosts all the ice cream parties.

The reward for Hurley came when teachers started evaluating their students' reading levels after summer vacation.

"We have students that are higher than they were in the spring," Hurley said. "It's awesome."

Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com

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