When it comes to literacy, Deanna Toohey has made a career of helping elementary students increase proficiency while developing a love for the written word.

As Elizabeth Shelton School’s reading specialist, Toohey’s goal is heightening the confidence of those students struggling in reading and writing — from one-on-one or small group literacy intervention to reorganizing the library to make those students feel more comfortable about book selections.

“Confidence is the building block for progress,” said Toohey, who was recognized for her efforts as the school district’s Innovative Educator for November. “I see it in eyes of these little ones as soon as they start to master certain skills ... the confidence grows, and it builds on everything.

“When they feel confident, relaxed, and they open their minds to learning, you start to see growth, growth, growth. It keeps me excited about my job, seeing the spark in their eyes and the gratitude of the parents,” added Toohey, a 31-year educator in the Shelton school district.

Toohey said collaboration is key to any success with improving student literacy — and that starts at the top with Elizabeth Shelton School Principal Bev Belden.

“The way she approaches the students and her fellow teachers is unbelievable,” said Belden of Toohey. “I am most appreciative to have her as a member of our team with how she supports staff, students, parents and myself.”

“I am very honored to receive the (innovative educator) award, but this is not about me,” said Toohey. “Here at Elizabeth Shelton, every single day, we are all working together to help the children. We are always thinking about how we can help our children develop and grow a love of learning.”

One collaboration Toohey said she is most excited about is with Shelton High teacher Jeffrey Roy. Some of Roy’s students are building bookcases, each with six cubbies in which baskets will be filled with books. The high schoolers will develop the bookcases and once completed place them in the art room, music room and gymnasium.

“We want our children have books be part of their life no matter where they are,” said Toohey.

These bookcases, containing baskets in each of the cubbies, are part of a larger library reorganization spearheaded by Toohey. Previously, the library contained book baskets with letters on them — A, B, C and so on — referring to reading level. Each student was to pick from their specific level.

What Toohey and her fellow teachers found was that some students were hesitant to pick from baskets, not wanting fellow classmates to know they were at a lower reading level.

“When a child is struggling with reading, they pick from a low letter basket, while they see other friends picking from a higher one — how does that feel for them?” asked Toohey. “When we start to mix the levels in the genre, a student can go to that sports basket without being embarrassed or ashamed. They are still picking the B book, but it is not obvious.”

Reorganizing the library, removing the letters and making the baskets genre or category based, Toohey says, allows students to pick a book at their reading level without feeling as if they are being identified as a lower level reader. This in turn builds confidence, which is the first step in improving literacy.

“Imagine hearing a child saying I can’t wait to pick from the poetry basket next week, or I read that math book ... it is great,” said Toohey. “I am proud to be among educators who try different things. I think genre-based libraries, where students can choose what they want to read about, is amazing.

“We are helping our children become passionate and interested and excited readers,” added Toohey.

Toohey, in more than 30 years in the district, was a second-grade teacher at Lafayette School, a second grade then kindergarten teacher at Booth Hill School, and a reading specialist at Sunnyside School before joining the staff at Elizabeth Shelton School.

“As reading consultant, I love being able to collaborate with teachers and work with children every single day,” said Toohey.

She works with children in small groups, and in many instances, she provides extra help in the classroom. She also models lessons for teachers in the classroom.

“The teachers in this building are so grateful for the support, and can’t say enough about Bev Belden,” said Toohey. “As a leader, she aims to build capacity in our building. She wants everybody to feel they are important. As a leader, she allows people to continue to grow and learn and try new things.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com