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ASU athletes become literacy coaches

ASU senior safety Ryan McFoy tutors a Cesar Chavez High School freshman during the Wright to Dream Literacy Camp last summer. (Photo Courtesy of Ken Costello)

After finishing a near-3 hour spring football practice, ASU senior wide receiver Brandon Smith ignores his most recent batch of aches and pains and makes his way over to the sidelines to see a special visitor.

The young lad that Smith lifts up into the air is Carson McGaha, the 9-month-old son of friend and teammate Chris McGaha.

OK, so Carson is really at football practice to see Dad, but Smith doesn’t let that sway him. He loves spending time with kids.

It’s a good thing, too, because last summer he spent time with a lot of them.

Smith, along with other members of the ASU football team and players on the women’s basketball team, worked at the Wright to Dream Literacy Camp last summer, part of freshman orientation at Cesar Chavez High School in Laveen.

The program, which began in 2007 and will run again in July, was created by retired Mesa Community College instructor Gene Fazio and his friend, Toby Wright, a former member of the St. Louis Rams, for whom the camp is named.

The camp matches about 500 incoming high school freshmen with Sun Devil athletes with the goal of improving literary skills through what Fazio calls an “intensive reading and writing tutoring program.”

The group of freshmen is divided into three days, with one group attending the camp each day. Then, each day is split into two sessions, so there are roughly 85 students in each group to be coached by the ASU athletes and other tutors.

Camp organizers and school faculty were amazed by the students’ reaction when they began working with the Sun Devils.

“Everybody was in shock,” Fazio said. “No one could believe how well the students responded to the athletes.”

Senior safety Ryan McFoy was also impressed by the reaction of the Chavez students.

“They were very much willing to learn,” McFoy said. “I loved interacting with them.”

The excitement wasn’t exclusive to the high-school students.

“Their eyes lit up for us and our eyes lit up back,” Smith said. “It was fun working with those kids. They were looking up to us, so we were trying to make sure we [provided] a good example.”

Five years ago, Fazio began spending his Saturday afternoons during the summer preparing high-school students for the AIMS test, a state-required standardized test for elementary-, middle- and high-school students.

He ran tutoring sessions at MCC and South Mountain High School. When the principal at South Mountain, Scott Gayman, left to take the job as principal at Chavez three years ago, he asked Fazio if he could tutor students there.

Fazio agreed, and soon after beginning work at Chavez, he approached Gayman with an idea of bringing the literary coaching techniques he was using to prepare students for the AIMS test to a larger group of students.

Fazio asked Gayman if he could take the tutoring program that he was using to teach groups of about 20 students and use it to instruct the bulk of the incoming freshman class at orientation.

He told Gayman that he would use his 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to help raise money to fund lunches for the students and pay for tutors — the ASU athletes were paid $15 per hour.

Gayman thought the undertaking was a large one, but he had faith in Fazio.

“I’ll never forget what [Gayman] said,” Fazio remembered. “He tells me, ‘Gene, I don’t know how in the world this is going to work, but if you think you can do it, we’ll move forward with it.”

Move forward they did. With the help of a donation from Sims Metal Management in Phoenix, Fazio got the money in place, and during football spring practice in 2007, he and Wright were given an opportunity to speak to the team and recruit tutors.

“I needed a reliable group,” Fazio said. “Where if someone said they were going to show up and they didn’t show up, I could go back to the coaches … so I wouldn’t be left hanging.”

Michelle Delgado, a former assistant principal at Chavez who is now the Language Acquisition Director for the Phoenix Union High School District, was assigned to help Fazio get the program started. She, too, was skeptical.

“At first, I didn’t know if it would work,” she said.

Even Fazio was initially anxious.

“Nobody knew [how the camp would turn out],” he said. “There were a lot of unknowns, a lot of moving pieces.”

But soon after the camp began, organizers lauded its effects.

“We were so amazed with the turnout that the kids had and just the professionalism of the ASU players,” Delgado said.

The athletes received training on how to teach The Coaching Literacy Program, Fazio’s tutoring method for which he has a patent pending.

He said the program strengthens the connection between reading and writing skills to improve overall literacy.

In the program, tutors provide “molding” and “scaffolding,” meaning students are given simple sentences and are then coached to expand them into longer and more complex sentences.

“For the most part, we let them do the work,” Smith said. “When they needed to ask a question, we were there for them.”

Smith and McFoy said the training they received to become tutors helped them remember some of the literary fine points they had forgotten over the years.

“It helped me out with a lot of stuff I forgot from high school,” McFoy quipped.

Fazio said the strength of the program comes from allowing the students to teach themselves with the help of the tutors.

“I still don’t understand how it works, but it does,” Delgado said. “Somehow it works, I can’t really explain it.”

Though she might not fully comprehend his program, Delgado is eager for Fazio to expand it. She has asked Fazio to use his method to help teach English Language Learner students throughout the district this fall, with the possibility of using more ASU athletes as tutors.

As far as the literacy camp at Chavez is concerned, there will likely be no shortage of tutors this summer.

“I’m going to try and [tutor] every year,” Smith said. “Even when I leave [college], I’ll probably come back and do it again.”

The Wright to Dream Literacy Camp will take place at Chavez from July 23 to 25.

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