Spc. Rafael Hernando III Middle School student Kaitlyn Llanez has earned a prestigious 2017 180 Student Award, a national honor that recognizes 15 children who have overcome personal and academic challenges to achieve success in the classroom.
The Team SISD sixth grader conquered a terminal cancer diagnosis and a stuttering problem that severely impacted her learning and life, and has made great strides with reading and academic success.
“I am really proud of myself for getting this award,” Kaitlyn said. “I have become a better, stronger reader and feel more confident thanks to my teacher and the program. I enjoy and understand books now. It makes me feel good and happy.”
Now in its 11th year, the 180 award recognizes students, who, along with the help of their remarkable teachers, have made significant gains in their reading and math achievement and ultimately paving the way to college and career readiness.
“I couldn’t be prouder and I can’t think of another student who deserves it more,” said Brenda Rios, Hernando’s Reading 180 teacher, who nominated Kaitlyn. “She has worked so hard for it. She inspires me to come into class every day and be the best that I can be.”
Kaitlyn isn’t the first Hernando student to receive this award. Two other students were winners in 2014 and 2016. Both were in Rios’s class. Hernando is the only El Paso area school to have earned this achievement.
“Part of this competition was picking a child who has overcome great obstacles and done exceptional things despite those obstacles,” Rios said. “If you know your students, you know that a lot of them have back stories. As with my other two students who won, Kaitlyn’s story is what this competition is about.”
Kaitlyn was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that doctor’s deemed terminal, at the age of seven. The tumor’s size and location (in the stomach cavity and wrapped around several organs) made it inoperable and radiation also was not a solution. The only option – with a very low success rate – was chemotherapy. To everyone’s surprise, chemo worked, shrinking the tumor enough to allow surgery.
But her year-long battle put Kaitlyn way behind in her studies. It prevented her from attending school for more than a year.
“It was hard because I was always in the hospital,” Kaitlyn said, in her submission letter for the award. “I didn’t go back to school until the end of second grade. When other kids my age were learning to read, I was learning about chemotherapy, surgeries, needle sticks and low blood counts. I fell behind in reading and other classes. The other kids were at school every day while I was mostly at the hospital.”
After beating cancer and having 10 surgeries, Kaitlyn returned to school, but continued to struggle. She stuttered when asked to read, avoided the library and saw book fairs as a waste of time.
“I didn’t like to read because the only way I could read was going word for word,” she said. “I could not read in a complete sentence. I didn’t understand what the book or story was about. I would get upset. I was so far behind. I would attend book fairs and I would look at all the cool books, but I didn’t see the point in wasting my money on something I couldn’t understand.”
It was this school year that Kaitlyn was assigned to the Reading 180 class. She vowed to be a better student. The course turned her world around. Her strong sense of determination to succeed allowed Kaitlyn to build a strong reading foundation. She now loves reading.
“This class and the program have made such a difference,” said her mother, Diana Llanez. “It has taught her to find the meaning of words and put thoughts together so she is actually enjoying reading. She reads a lot. We go to the library all the time. She reads to other kids, too. I know that she also is a mentor to another student that also has medical issues.”
Kaitlyn has improved her reading level significantly. With Reading 180, Lexile points are used to measure a student’s reading ability. Kailyn has gained 324 Lexile points since school began. It is a remarkable improvement considering that on average a student her age and grade gains about 70 points.
“It is amazing,” Rios said. “But she has been working so very hard.”
Both her mom and Rios agreed that reading isn’t the only improvement. Kaitlyn’s self-confidence is drastically better.
“She has grown up so much this year that she is a different person,” Diana Llanez said. “She will be the first one to raise her hand to read. She has always had a positive outlook on everything. I love the heart that she has to do better and be better.”
Rios said the student who walked into the Reading 180 classroom at the beginning of this year is not the same person.
“As far as her personality and her self-confidence goes, it has been amazing to watch because I have seen her flourish,” Rios said. “I believe this class and this competition helped to show her who she really is and who she really could be. And I feel that the person she is, is an inspiration to not only the students, but to adults, the family and friends around her.”
For the confident Kaitlyn, the goal is to one day become a pediatric nurse for cancer patients. She knows what it feels like and hopes to make life a little easier for those youngsters dealing with cancer. As for reading, she realizes its importance.
“It is used in everything and everywhere,” she said. “I feel so proud that I became a better reader.”
Read more about the 2017 180 Student Awards and profiles of the winners: