The three Rs – reading, ’riting and Sandra Priest Rose

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare has his passionate Juliet observe to ignite her Romeo.

Still, there’s plenty in the name Rose, particularly if you’re talking about the family of builders, philanthropists, educators, writers and musicians. Their vision, talent, craftsmanship and money have created programs and buildings at New York’s leading cultural institutions – including the American Museum of Natural History, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and The Metropolitan Museum of Art – making the family the 21st century’s answer to the House of Medici.

Among their contributions is the renovated Deborah, Jonathan F.P., Samuel Priest and Adam Raphael Rose Main Reading Room – a sweeping, soaring space in The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street that is the epitome of both the richly ornamented Beaux Arts style and the democratic ideal that information, presented in beautiful surroundings, should be available to everyone. The Reading Room is named for the children of Frederick P. and Sandra Priest Rose, the late master builder and his widow, an educator.

“Fred and I deemed it a privilege,” the longtime Westchester resident says of the projects they have funded.

As she talks about how he took Peter Cooper and Andrew Carnegie as his philanthropic models – even during their modest beginnings – her husband smiles down on her from a portrait in her handsome blond wood-paneled library. (A more intimate space reveals additional books.)

Rose’s library and home is like the woman herself – lovely, engaging and completely without pretension. It’s this no-nonsense approach that you sense has enabled her to forge ahead in a formidable cause that is clearly dear to her heart – children’s literacy. She is the founding chairman and treasurer of the Reading Reform Foundation of New York, a 30-year-old nonprofit that uses an integrated approach to train public school teachers to teach kindergartners through third-graders how to read.

Says Rose: “It’s so old-fashioned, it’s revolutionary.”

The Reading Reform Foundation grew out of a meeting she had with a group of teachers more than 30 years ago and the needs they identified.

“Schools of education do not teach teachers how to teach spelling, writing, reading, composition and comprehension,” Rose says. “It’s mostly sociological, psychological (training). That doesn’t help you in the classroom. You need practical stuff.”

Drawing on the work of neurologist Samuel T. Orton – a pioneer in the causes and treatment of learning disabilities, particularly dyslexia – Reading Reform uses a multisensory method that emphasizes phonics and group reinforcement.

The sounds of the letters and groups of letters forming the letters and putting them into words to make sentences.”

So, for instance, the teacher would be trained to show the student how the “igh” combination creates a long “i” in the word “light,” what light means, how to use it in a sentence and how to write it. By the time the student was in third grade, he or she would learn the word’s Anglo-Saxon origins — and quite possibly, Rose adds, that many of today’s naughty words are Anglo-Saxon. That’s because, she says, the Normans who conquered England looked down on the native Anglo-Saxons. And so a world of history and literature opens up, one in which the connected brain, eye, ear and hand each play a part.

Under this system, the teachers are not merely given instruction by trainers, who are themselves in most cases retired teachers. They’re also mentored by the trainers in twice weekly visits (that’s 60 a year) – which is unusual, Rose says.

It costs the Reading Reform Foundation more than $25,000 to work with two teachers in their classrooms for a year. (The foundation charges the participating school $3,000 per classroom, with a minimum of two classrooms.) Reading Reform makes up the difference with contributions.

This year, there are more than 1,600 students in all New York City boroughs except Staten Island and in Port Chester’s Thomas A. Edison School who are participating in the program, with 64 teachers receiving the training and 300 teachers taking Reading Reform courses. Since the foundation’s inception, more than 30,000 students in New York City and Mount Vernon have been taught, using the Reading Reform method; more than 20,000 teachers have attended the annual conference and taken graduate-level courses; and 1,200 teachers have participated in the in-school teacher-training program.

“Inner-city students thrive on a demanding, intellectual curriculum,” Rose says. But literacy, she stresses, isn’t just an inner-city challenge.

“Privileged and underprivileged children learn by these step-by-step, phonetic methods.”

Rose, whose sense of humor is as self-deprecating as it is earthy, was already a lifelong reader and self-described “middle-aged retread” when she resumed her education at Manhattanville College in Purchase. (She had just two years at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie when she married Fred Rose at 19.)

“I love that place,” she says of Manhattanville. “They were so encouraging to their older students.”

At Manhattanville, Rose developed her passion for history – American, Asian, European, all of it. It’s her go-to subject when she’s looking for reading material herself.

Rose went on to obtain an advanced degree in learning disabilities at The College of New Rochelle. And she taught at Community School District 9 in the South Bronx at a time when the Bronx was burning. Her charges were junior high school students, a tough audience. But Rose sensed a hunger for learning. She beams as she recalls taking the students to The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval branch in northern Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, where they would parse the differences between Romanesque and Gothic arches.

Indeed, she has the true teacher’s delight in her students’ accomplishments. Her book “Sunday is for the Sun, Monday is for the Moon,” written with Glen Nelson, spotlights students’ compositions, reading-inspired artwork and testimonials.

“Why do they call it Reading Reform?” one student wonders. “It should be called Reading Intelligence, because that’s how it makes me feel.”

But Rose really gets a kick out of the saucy child who balked at being prompted to thank her for the gift of being able to read “The Odyssey.”

“Why should we thank Mrs. Rose?” she remembers the child asking. “Homer wrote it.”

For more on the Reading Reform Foundation, call (212) 307-7320 or visit readingreformny.org.

 

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