D181129 Velinda Dionicio

Velinda Dionicio Perez became proficient in English in less than 18 months and has read more than 6 million words since the beginning of the school year. [DEANGELO MCDANIEL/DECATUR DAILY]

Velinda Dionicio Perez stop counting how many books she had read sometime in the seventh grade because she said that wasn’t important.

“I wanted to know English, and I wanted to be good at speaking English,” she said.

Mission accomplished.

In less than 18 months, Perez, an eighth-grade student at Decatur Middle School, went from being classified as sheltered at the EXCEL Center to testing proficient in reading earlier this year. She has continued to achieve and has read more than 6 million words since school started in August.

“She’s so driven and what she has accomplished is phenomenal,” said Elizabeth House, who is a middle school English as a Second Language coach and works at the EXCEL Center.

Decatur City Schools opened the center in August 2016 to help students who were struggling with English and Perez — then a sixth-grade student at Oak Park Middle — was listed as a sheltered, meaning she spoke very little English.

She was one of the 170 students DCS served at the EXCEL Center in 2016 and one of the reasons 84 percent of the middle school students had gains on ACCESS (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State) test.

ACCESS is a proficiency test designed to measure ELL students’ social academic proficiency and to monitor their progress in mastering the English language.

House said Perez’s gains were so significant as a sixth-grade student that she recommended Perez spend her entire seventh-grade year at her home school.

This is when Perez used almost all of the time she would have spent at the EXCEL Center reading. It’s also when she forged a relationship with librarian Stacy Fox.

“She’s always reading and she’s an excellent overall young lady,” said Fox, adding that she doesn’t remember a time when Perez didn’t have a book checked out from the middle school library.

Perez, now 14, came to the U.S. from South America as a Spanish speaker and enrolled in DCS in 2016. She struggled to hit any of the required benchmarks, but kept reading, especially after her vocabulary increased at the EXCEL Center.

Even when she didn’t understand or couldn’t pronounce every word in a book, she kept reading and this is what she said helped her reach proficiency in reading.

“It’s impressive how quick she has become a proficient reader,” House said.

Proficient means students are reading at or above grade level, which is something fewer than half of Decatur’s students are doing.

Perez estimates that she has read “at least 75 books.”

Since the Decatur City Schools Foundation launched its Million Word Campaign about three months ago, she has read 43 books. The foundation is trying to get every elementary and middle school student to read at least a million words this school year.

DCS is able to monitor how many words students are reading because they take an online test through Accelerated Reader that identifies the number of words each book contains.

So far, Perez’s word count exceeds 6 million, House said.

“If you want to learn the English language and become a good reader, you have to read,” Perez said.

She prefers reading fiction over non-fiction and her favorite author is Judith Lewis, who is better known by her pen name of Cassandra Clare. The American author of young adult fiction is best known for her bestselling series “The Mortal Instruments.”

Perez has read the series, and one of the few times she smiled was when she talked about a book Clare is releasing next month.

“Can’t wait,” she said.

Perez, an honor-roll student, said she reads at least three hours per day. She wants to be an astronomer because she “likes things about space, the galaxy and thinks this is cool.”

Her advice to students who want to reach proficiency and become a better reader is simple.

“Read more,” Perez said.

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- deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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