By Elana Warsen


When he’s not in school, nine-year-old TJ Holmgren can be found on the baseball diamond, hockey rink, or cruising on a four-wheeler. Most people would be surprised to learn that the Cohasset Elementary third grader, known for his sense of humor and love of the outdoors, has also logged hundreds of hours in a quieter environment—the tutoring classroom at Great Minds Learning Center.

TJ’s tutoring journey began when his first grade teacher raised concerns about his reading progress, prompting his parents to seek out one-on-one tutoring at GMLC. “My husband’s coworker said that Great Minds had helped his daughter, so he recommended we call [Executive Director] Marianne Jylha. Within a week she had us scheduled with a tutor,” says TJ’s mom, Stacy Holmgren.

“TJ came to Great Minds not experiencing success in school,” recalls GMLC tutor Jennifer Skaar, who worked with TJ for two years. “He was insecure and didn’t understand why he was struggling. He was a first grader who wanted to quit school.”

Jennifer was “totally, 100% sure” that TJ was capable of success, but getting there would require hard work. “He came to tutoring twice a week, even in the summer,” Jennifer says. “There were times when he was tired and didn’t want to come, but he kept pushing forward.”

TJ admits that balancing tutoring with school and sports practice was a challenge. “It’s hard going to tutoring after school,” he says, “but Ms. Jennifer makes it fun. She goes over everything a lot to help you understand, and you get to play games.”

Together, TJ and Jennifer set out to fill TJ’s imaginary “toolbox” with “tools” (reading rules) he could use on his own. He started improving right away. “TJ’s toolbox got full real quick,” Jennifer says. “Within two weeks I saw a different demeanor in him. He was more positive. He was smiling. He was experiencing success.”

TJ’s hard work at tutoring led to results in the classroom. On his first grade end of the year reading assessment, his teacher wrote the following note: “TJ has made great gains this year, especially this spring!”

Every few months Jennifer and TJ tracked his progress toward grade level goals using an assessment tool called DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). At each checkup the difficulty level of the text increased, and so did TJ’s mastery of grade level skills. His DIBELS score in June 2016 was just 24.5%. By January 2018 it had climbed to 98.9%.

“It makes me proud,” TJ says of his dramatic improvement. “It took a lot of hard work but it feels good.”

Stacy gets emotional when talking about her son’s DIBELS data.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I knew he’d been working very hard. Every single session he came home with reading passages he had mastered. When Jennifer shared his DIBELS results I was in tears. I was shocked to see how much progress he had made since his last DIBELS score [in October 2017]”.

In February of this year, Jennifer gave the Holmgren family another surprise. She told them she thought that TJ was ready to “open his wings and fly,” to graduate from Great Minds Learning Center.

“I was in tears,” Jennifer says of the “bittersweet” realization that her two-year journey with TJ was coming to an end. “TJ was all excited. His mom was in tears.”

Tutoring required hard work and sacrifices for the Holmgren family, but Stacy says TJ’s success was worth it. “Great Minds is worth the investment,” she says. “Don’t be discouraged by the cost or the time it takes you to get to your goal. It pays off in the end.”

TJ rarely opens up about his learning difficulties or his attendance at GMLC, he says. But he broke his silence to send an important message to other kids who might be struggling in school. “Great minds helped me and it can help you too,” he says.


 Marianne small portrait

Director’s Corner

Here’s what Executive Director Marianne Jylha has to say about TJ’s story.

By the middle of first grade TJ was already significantly behind. His teachers recognized that he was memorizing instead of reading and brought this to Mrs. Holmgren's attention. She in turn brought him in to Great Minds for a dyslexia screening. Confusion with phonological components of language stood out against his careful work and concentrated efforts. In March of 2016 we began working with TJ two hours a week. This is a great illustration of how we can most effectively support families and schools. TJ came to us as a struggling reader and exited as a leader.”  

Do you know somebody who could use a little extra help with reading, writing, or math? Call Great Minds Learning Center at 218-999-5525 or visit our website to learn about our services.

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