by Andrew Blair
Robin Hegner believes that there are no limits to learning and that everyone is eligible for continuing education. That outlook is partly the inspiration responsible for launching her into teaching and why, at its best, she finds it so rewarding, enriching, and empowering.
As the crow flies, Riverside School and Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center are less than two miles away from one another. But the two parcels of land couldn’t be more different.
Here, a quaint, comfortable, campus is full of enthusiastic teachers and wide-eyed children in grades K-8. Here, kids are still innocent enough to be optimistic about the world. Here, if that hope fades, there is a friend, a teacher, a loved one, a family member ready to reassure them that all will be OK.
Geographically, blink at a less than an ideal time and you just might miss the small parcel of land that Riverside School sits on.
There is no mistaking the correctional center.
There, an enclave of menacing steel, barbed and razor wire surrounds its entrance, encasing mostly high school and post-high school aged residents scarred by the world, some of whom feel a sense of hopelessness—perhaps rooted in genetics—but undoubtedly a result of life-altering, regrettable decisions in a world where there are no do-overs. There, whatever the reason, someone or something put them in this institutionalized setting, which can be dark and obscure in its setting, a sometimes frightening complement to residents’ souls, which can seem dimly-lit.
There, from a human perspective, emotional issues, behavioral problems, addiction, and illiteracy are common among the residents. Truth be told, for many, support systems outside of the facility do not exist.
“It’s a totally different world. They have a very transient population, so some students might be there for three or four weeks. Others may be there for months at a time.” says Hegner, who has been a Riverside teacher and instructor for more than 15 years altogether. “And they see a lot of repeat offenders.”
Through her time at Riverside, Hegner has expertise in the Orton-Gillingham (O-G) Approach, the cornerstone of the school’s teaching philosophy. At is best, the Approach retrains the brain in a way that helps individuals face the learning barriers presented by dyslexia and other language-based learning differences head-on, a mission at the heart of Riverside’s founding and mission.
There is no known cure for dyslexia, but the O-G Approach might just be the closest thing to making inroads in remediating the learning disability. The underlying good news of the O-G Approach is that the Approach unpacks the sounds, as well as shapes of letters and provides clarity to words that often share commonalities. The results can be transformative.
So when the Correctional Facility contacted Riverside looking for someone to train their teachers in the basics of the O-G Approach, the school immediately thought of Hegner. Hegner has extensive educational experience at Riverside, including one-on-one instruction, as well as teaching parts of the school’s summer Associate Level 60-hour course and mentoring for Riverside’s summer Applied Practice courses.
She is well-equipped with other real-world encounters, too. Hegner has a law degree from William & Mary. She practiced education law for 15 years and was a lawyer and lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association. She served as Director of Due Special Education Due Process Proceedings at the Department of Education, and handled special education due process proceedings. Additionally, she worked in the federal post-conviction assistance projects while in law school. Part of her responsibilities entailed working in federal prisons to help inmates file claims.
On one hand, the human toll has hit Hegner hard. On the other, the people and their stories inspired her to act. She recalls representing a child in juvenile court who was headed to the Bon Air Juvenile Correction Center. At the conclusion of the hearing, Hegner recalls riding with a co-worker and taking the young man to his house to pick up a few garments and some toiletries. What she thought was a basic request turned out to be anything but after his mother handed Hegner a paper bag.
“I didn’t look in the bag until we drove off,” Hegner remembers. “And when I looked in the bag, I said to the person riding with me, ‘We have to go to Walmart.’ There was a scuzzy toothbrush, one pair of underwear, and an old comb. And that was it. That really struck home. A lot of these kids have never had a chance.”
Consequently, Hegner has turned the ‘why-doesn’t-someone-do-something?’ question on herself. So in December 2018, Hegner used her nearly encyclopedic knowledge and incredible resourcefulness to teach the more than 25 teachers at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Facility’s staff how to best teach and implement the time-tested, scientifically proven O-G Approach.
The session lasted four days and was conducted over 12 hours in the facility’s administrative office buildings, adjacent to the main area.
The on-staff teachers at the facility have expertise in any number of specialties, including education, special education, and other areas such as science and social studies, among other subjects. But for a new audience getting their first touchpoint with O-G, Hegner elected—wisely—to rely upon foundational learning by emphasizing the building blocks of the Approach.
“It’s just like building a house. You can’t build a house without a foundation,” Hegner emphasizes. “You can’t teach reading if you don’t have the foundation for reading.”
Stoked by that mindset, she taught principles of basic phonics, which, loosely put, is the sound-symbol relationship between a letter and a sound. Importantly, Hegner shared how to instruct using visual and tactile multisensory methods. She drove home points on morphology—the study of the internal structure of words and the rules governing the formation of words in a language. She noted the significance of word-syllable division, covered prefixes, root words, and suffixes, as well as the importance of sequencing lessons appropriately.
The aforementioned topics comprise a small sample of Hegner’s lessons. Through it all, the goal remained consistent.
“What they really needed was specific instruction on how to take Orton-Gillingham strategies and apply it to their population,” Hegner says. “They (teachers) have great training in dealing with the emotional issues that a lot of the residents deal with, but not a lot of training on how to help them learn to read. There are high incidents of reading difficulties among the correctional population.”
And though it may sound elementary, the English language can be difficult to grasp, especially for those incarcerated at the facility who likely weren’t taught effectively at an early age.
“There are 25 letters, there are 44 sounds, and there are 1,100 ways to spell those sounds. That’s why English is complicated,” Hegner notes.
Beyond the lessons, put into play, part of the Approach encourages—no, demands—reinforcement that leads to retention, Hegner says. And the hard truth is that when teaching someone to read and write, students are going to enjoy days of breakthrough success and other moments when seemingly basic principles can be so close to being grasped, only to remain out of reach.
That said, Hegner believes in helping teachers without hand-holding with the hope they’ll do the same with the students, a point she underscored. Hegner remembers hammering home the idea.
“If a student says to you, ‘What is this word?’ Now, you know how to help them figure it out for themselves—not tell them,” Hegner pointed out. “It’s that old adage: Give someone a fish and you’ll feed them for a day. Teach them to fish, and you’ll feed them for a lifetime.
“And that was the idea for the teachers: You’re not going to use all of these Orton-Gillingham principles every single day, but if you have them in your toolbox, you can pull them out and use them when you need them as a gateway to teach someone.”
Hegner admits the experience was not without its trials, not the least of which was her unfamiliarity among audience members and, perhaps most of all, the timing of the courses. The sessions were conducted a week before Christmas.
“The teachers could have been home getting ready for Christmas and baking cookies, but they were there instead,” Hegner says.
The end goal is the same for all involved—to help residents get out and stay out of the correctional facility with the hope that they will continue their education or enter the workforce. They can’t do that if letters, sentences, and words look like an alphabet soup.
The petite Hegner isn’t afraid to dive deep or dirty her hands, especially if it means helping the downtrodden or individuals cast aside by the education system. A good number of the lessons she teaches go beyond the ABC’s in knowing how to teach, what to say, along with a keen understanding of the do’s and don’ts when dealing with troubled young people.
“You have to meet the student where he or she is. The biggest challenge is high school students are very different from elementary and middle school students,” says Hegner, who has been an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia and John Tyler Community College. In addition to her work at Riverside, she has trained teachers and parents at The New Community School, a Richmond-based school for children with dyslexia, and today owns her own consulting and tutoring business called ‘Pathways to Reading Success.’ “At Riverside, we’re used to dealing with younger children. You have to make everything appear not babyish to a high school student because if you don’t, the high school students are going to shut down. It’s difficult to find high interest reading material on a level that they can read.”
Hegner recently accepted a position as Riverside’s Fellow-in-Training. Part of the responsibilities require that she train teachers in the Orton-Gillingham-Approach. Hegner’s interest in helping people seemingly never wavers. Not surprisingly, she is hoping to continue her work in helping teachers at the correctional facility—or maybe even expand it. As it is, a four-day session on the O-G Approach can be overwhelming.
As Hegner can well attest, there’s always something new to learn.
“They need a lot of information about how to differentiate instruction,” Hegner says. “A lot of their questions were, ‘Well, what do I do when I have four kids in my room and all four are on different levels?’ You can do (O-G) on a more advanced level, but Joe over here, needs to do it at a very elementary level.”
From a sociological standpoint, pull back the curtain and Hegner and the teachers know that an eyebrow or two may be raised by a culture—seemingly willing to ostracize if given the opportunity—when it comes to the idea of helping people who have run astray of the law.
Hegner’s response is encourage people to listen to real-life voices before speaking. She recounts a message from a former inmate during a workshop that brought together former prisoners.
“He was probably in his 40s and very well-spoken. He was talking about how he had to fight every day not to go back on the street and sell drugs,” Hegner remembers. “For the longest time, nobody would give him a job because he had been in jail for selling drugs, for selling marijuana. He finally caught a break and was able to get a job as a custodian. He was trying to support children and grandchildren. But he said, ‘Every day I have to fight the urge to sell drugs because I know how much money I could make to help my family.’ The way we keep people from that is through education.”
Author’s Note: Hegner has a Facebook page where she posts interesting information about working with children with dyslexia and ADHD. Click here to visit the page >>