When Eric Laughed

When Eric Laughed

The Shadow Project’s Alejandra Gurrola will never forget the first time she heard Eric laugh. “It was a sound of pure joy,” she said.

Eric, a Portland fourth grader in special education, was reading years below his classmates. On the playground, he got picked on for reading “baby books.” Eric often became discouraged, said his mother, Yim. “Sometimes, he didn’t want to try.”

Then Alejandra began coaching Eric and other Shadow Project students who struggle to access books the way most kids do. Using an audio and visual library for children with learning challenges, she helped Eric set reading goals and celebrate his progress. He began reading with his ears and eyes, donning headphones and following highlighted text on a screen.

One day, Eric burst out laughing while talking to his friends about a funny book they were all reading, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “Another world had opened up for him,” Alejandra said. Best of all, Eric’s reading catapulted two grade levels last school year!

“Eric is different this year,” says Yim. “Now, he’s reading. He’s reading much better because of the audio books. He’s read a lot of books that he loves, some of them over and over. I am so proud of him.”

Every year, two-thirds of Oregon children with disabilities miss the critical benchmark of third grade reading proficiency that predicts high school graduation. A 2015 report estimated that with the right supports, 85 to 90% of students receiving special education services could meet regular diploma requirements. In Oregon, only 37% do so now.

The Shadow Project is a Portland nonprofit that teams with teachers in 39 local schools to make classrooms a place where children who learn differently—those with dyslexia, autism, and ADHD among others—can thrive. By equipping classrooms with special tools tailored to diverse learning needs, The Shadow Project has fostered academic and social success for more than 11,000 students who are typically one- to three years below grade level.

Eric was one of his school’s top audio books readers last year. He read 14 hours on audio books—464 pages in 17 days—over the summer. And this school year, he reads at least 30 minutes at home every night.

“I want Eric to have an education,” says Yim. “That’s my hope. Thank goodness for these programs that help Eric so much.”

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