Most students at Oro Valley’s Painted Sky Elementary School are “strong readers,” parent and former teacher Christy Mays reports.

Other children struggle with “one of the most essential skills,” the ability to read, and to comprehend what they read, parent Heidi Radtke said. Those kids need help, and it’s hard for a teacher to give individual attention in a fast-paced learning environment with more than 25 children in a K-5 classroom.

“As much as you try, you just can’t work individually with 30 kids every day,” said Mays, the mom of a fourth-grader. She taught at Painted Sky for three years, and believes at least five students in each of those classes “could use individual attention with reading.”

As a teacher “it’s heartbreaking to see a student struggle in your class,” Mays added. But it is “a challenge to meet every child’s different needs. You really can’t duplicate one-on-one time. Nothing is more productive, in my opinion.”

That’s why Radtke, Mays and other volunteers have created the Thunderbird Resource Center, a reading and math-tutoring program that gives one-on-one attention to more than 40 Painted Sky students. Other students are on the waiting list, in need of tutors.

“We could use more volunteers,” Mays said. “We still have a lot of children.”

Radtke is the parent of a second grader at Painted Sky, and has a 4-year-old coming along. “I’m in it for the long haul,” Radtke said.

She taught in Virginia, in a school system “that had a lot more funding, a lot more resources” than Amphitheater Public Schools. At Painted Sky, “I see the teachers working so incredibly hard for less money. I want to fix it, or help.”

Radtke learned about the volunteer tutoring program at Wilson K-8, and wondered “why can’t my child’s school have this?

“I’ve never been good at putting things on the back burner,” Radtke said. So she’s put her energy into the TRC, and it has taken off, with more and more volunteer tutors, an influx of supplies and expanding energy.

“When people hear about a good program, they’re willing to embrace it,” Mays said. She heard Radtke speak about tutoring, and found her to be “very motivating. Right away, I knew this is something I want to be a part of.”

“My expertise is reading,” said Radtke, who has worked on a master’s degree in the subject. “It’s important to be able to read for content, and to think critically. The goal of reading is to teach us. There’s a real art to it.”

The tutoring of young readers at Painted Sky Elementary School is far more strategic than simply reading with children. Classroom teachers complete a referral form for a student in need of tutoring for alphabet, phonological awareness, phonics, high-frequency words, fluency and comprehension. “The more specific the information, the more focused our individualized lessons can be,” Radtke said. “Let’s meet them where they are.

“If a child is not reading for a particular skill, that child will not internalize that skill,” Radtke said. “Their skill set becomes like Swiss cheese.”

“Volunteer tutors are not left on their own to decide what to do,” Mays said. “We look at the assessment, and get that specific information.” A filing cabinet contains lesson plans for the particular skill. Tutors take the assignments, and teach them. Each lesson has an accompanying book.

“It’s very user-friendly,” Mays said. “If you’re not a teacher, or not from an education background, you can still use these lessons.” Before they begin, tutors are trained, and agree to protect the confidentiality of a student.

The Painted Sky parent teacher organization helped fund the Thunderbird Reading Center with money for supplies and books. Radtke is working to write grants for the project. She’d love to have a much-expanded library of book sets and materials, costing thousands of dollars.

For now, “I want to make teaching easier for teachers,” she said.

“I love it,” Radtke said of the work. “My heart just goes out to the teachers. If there’s something we can do as a community to help them … People belittle the profession. They don’t know how hard they work.”

“This project impacts everyone,” Mays said. “That’s why we feel so passionate about it.”

“We’re all in it as a community,” Radtke said. “This isn’t going to happen on its own.”

TRC coordinator Heidi Radtke can be reached at

TRC a place where reading is celebrated

The Thunderbird Reaching Center occupies space in the Painted Sky Elementary School library that once housed the school’s intervention specialist.

Painted Sky used to have a dedicated reading intervention specialist; now, that position is intended for both reading and math, and is housed in a different room. Students in the primary grades get fundamental reading support, but in grades 3-5, “they don’t always get the intervention they need,” volunteer coordinator Heidi Radtke believes. Volunteers, then, fill in the void.

“What a difference just 20 minutes of reading makes to a child’s reading growth,” volunteer and former teacher Christy Mays said.

Reading is celebrated in the TRC. On the walls, students’ hands are traced on colored paper, cut out and adorned with stickers and phrases that reinforce reading. “Reading is cool,” says one. “Reading rocks,” reads another.

There are also incentives for kids who give their best. Do so, repeatedly, and they can pick a book. On a recent school morning, one young man was excited to select “How I Became a Pirate” for his own.

TRC coordinator Heidi Radtke can be reached at

Volunteers say tutoring is enjoyable, rewarding

Two volunteers who help children learn how to read at Painted Sky Elementary School find the task enjoyable, and rewarding.

Jenny Jones, parent of a third-grader, tutors two children a half-hour each per week.

“I’m directly involved in helping children improve,” she said.

Each child is different. “A lot already enjoy” reading, Jones said. “They might need a little extra help. Any time they get better at it, they’re going to enjoy it more.”

With lesson plans ready, Jones feels comfortable she’s doing what’s needed. “I’m not from a teaching background, so it’s great for me,” said Jones, who has a degree in business administration.

Each tutoring relationship begins with a “meet and greet” introduction. Quickly, bonds form. “I did not foresee the relationships between tutors and students,” said Thunderbird Resource Center coordinator Heidi Radtke.

Jones likes the bonds. One young man “gets really excited to see me. They respond differently than to their parent.”

“Sometimes, children and parents don’t want to read together,” agreed Michelle Baller, a private reading and math tutor and former Texas schoolteacher who enjoys the contact through tutoring at Painted Sky. “I’m able to contribute, and utilize these skills from my profession,” she said.

At the TRC, “parents are learning how to read with their own kids,” Radtke said. “They’re getting an experience of what it is to be a teacher. They have an appreciation for teachers.”

Classrooms are “fast-paced,” Baller said. By the end of kindergarten, a student must be able to read 50 words, and know their sounds. When a student misses a skill, they fall behind. It’s up to teachers to “figure out where they’re at, and what skills they’re missing,” Baller said, and the tutors address the needs.

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