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Dr. Seuss, reading excellence and Arkansas road trips

Mary Hiniker in her River Crest Elementary School reading room, where Dr. Seuss characters help make the learning fun.(Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)

The Cat in the Hat, the Grinch and all the other Dr. Seuss toys in Mary Hiniker’s reading room might be gone soon, but it’s a safe bet that her students won’t forget them.

“I’ve gotten lots of little notes from my kids over the years,” Hiniker says, motioning to about a dozen hand-written thank-yous and “Best Reading Teacher” messages taped to her walls at River Crest Elementary School.

“They come to my door with them, and I hang them up. I also get a lot of birthday treats from them on their birthdays.”

The notes and treats always make her day, but, for Hiniker, a Hudson School District reading specialist for the last 18 years, the big payoff is what happens when her work is done.

“What’s really cool is when I see so many kids just soar with their reading after being in the program,” she explains.

“Children need to learn to read before they can read to learn. My job is to get them caught up to grade level in their reading skills so they can take off with their learning. The reading program is definitely a good investment for these kids.”

Hiniker, who has spent the last six years at River Crest, will retire when the school year ends May 13.

Arkansas bound

Not long after, she and her husband David will be on the road to Arkansas to visit their son Michael, daughter-in-law Tiffany and two grandchildren, 6-year-old Allie and 2-year-old Mason.

The family had lived “just a couple of blocks” away from Hiniker in Prescott before moving, so Arkansas trips will be on her calendar often from now on. Another son, Matthew, lives in Eagan, Minn., with his wife Sarah, who also is a teacher.

“I will really miss all the children at school, and I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends here over the years,” Hiniker explains. “I just feel like this is my time to see my sons, their wives and my grandkids. I look forward to having more time for my hobbies too.”

She adds: “I’ve always eaten books up like candy, so, of course, I’ll continue to do a lot of reading.”

‘Extra time with strugglers’

Hiniker’s career began with student-teaching third-graders in Prescott, where a supervisor “noticed that I liked to spend extra time with the strugglers.” That led to a special-education emphasis that allowed her to “work with those who need a little extra help.”

A psychology and sociology major in college, Hiniker has also collected a master’s in elementary education, a reading master's and a certification in learning disabilities along the way.

Her career in the Hudson School District began in August 1996 at Houlton Elementary School.

She chuckles when asked if she remembers her first day on the job there: “You know, I really don’t. But I do remember the beautiful window I had in my room –- just a beautiful, wall-sized window that looked out over a woods. That was awesome.”

She also remembers seeing Louise Hermanson, a former classmate when both were chasing learning-disabilities certificates. Hermanson was now Houlton’s learning-disabilities teacher.

“I felt so relieved that I recognized one person on the staff,” Hiniker recalls. “We became fast friends.

Hiniker has been at River Crest since it opened in 2008, working with assistant Heather Solie. This year, she taught 46 kids in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Small groups, intervention and progress

All of Hiniker’s students take regular reading classes during the year, but they also spend another hour a day in her room.

The technical term for what she does is “research-based intervention and progress-monitoring.” But, to the kids, it basically boils down to individual learning that’s both challenging and fun.

“I teach small groups,” Hiniker explains, “and I use several practices and methods, depending on a child’s individual needs in the big five areas of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, fluency and vocabulary.”

The result?

“Oh, it makes a huge difference. We have really high reading scores in this district,” Hiniker notes.

“It’s very satisfying as well. The best part is seeing kids getting turned on to certain genres, authors and book series. It’s just a great feeling and very rewarding.”

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

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