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Aquinas Graduate Student Works in a Pioneering Literacy Program

Andrew Willing, an Aquinas alumnus who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geography in 2008, never considered pursuing education. But today, not only is he back at Aquinas for his master’s degree in education, but he also helped introduce an innovative literacy program at Sibley Elementary School.

While working at what he thought would be a short-term job as a substitute teacher, Willing discovered a passion for helping students learn new ideas. “I love the ‘aha’ moment when you see a student’s face and you know they got it,” he said. When Sibley began using a program called Leveled Literacy Intervention in 2011, Willing’s coworkers recognized his skills and enthusiasm, recommending him as a literacy interventionist for the new program.

Leveled Literacy Intervention, or LLI, targets students whose literacy skills are slightly below grade level and gives them focused assistance in small-group settings. It uses frequent assessments to track their progress and shed light on what skills might need more attention. “A big component of the LLI program is data-tracking,” Willing said, adding that his training in geography equipped him to analyze the large amounts of data in these assessments.

The program even caught the attention of Governor Rick Snyder, who recently toured Sibley and spoke with Willing about LLI. Snyder appreciated the program’s emphasis on collecting and using data to serve students, Willing said. He added that he’d love to see LLI used as a pattern for literacy intervention throughout Michigan, since inadequate literacy skills make students more likely to drop out of school.

Willing said the Aquinas community’s impact on him made his current successes possible. As an undergraduate, he suffered a breakdown after the loss of a close friend, and the emotional trauma made it impossible to focus on his schoolwork. Even during that time, his professors recognized his intelligence and work ethic. They worked with him and encouraged him as he recovered from that painful period in his life.

When he graduated, Willing won the Sister Jean Paul Tilmann Award, which recognizes the most outstanding geography major at Aquinas. Dr. Richard McCluskey, chair of the geography department and Willing’s professor for his geography capstone course, explained the significance of the award: “‘Outstanding’ not only implies good grades but a passion for the subject matter. It was clear that Andrew enjoyed the discipline of geography and it showed in the quality of his work.”

When Willing completes his master’s degree in education, he wants to teach social studies for grades 6-8. He’d like to work in a Catholic school system and eventually become an administrator. However, this does not change how much Willing loves his current job, coworkers and students. “I can’t emphasize how much support I get at Sibley,” he said.

He also drew tremendous support from the people he met at Aquinas, and five years after he received his bachelor’s degree, it is clear that Willing made an impact on them as well. “He exhibited excellent analytical and critical thinking skills in the classroom,” McCluskey said about Willing, “and it appears that those qualities have done him well out in the real world.”