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Family Time for Literacy

A mother moves her finger along with the words, a literacy development skill, as she reads to her daughter in the preschool classroom at a weekly Lift Up Through Literacy event at Skyridge Church.
Parents, kids learn tools to improve reading, writing and even math

It’s a Wednesday night at Skyridge Church of the Brethren in Kalamazoo. Children are everywhere, as young as 1 to middle-schoolers. Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, older siblings and caretakers are also on hand. No matter what their age, they are all here for one reason — to learn.

Not just at Skyridge Church but in various locations all over Kalamazoo families come to 90-minute meetups every week for eight weeks to brush up on their literacy skills, as a part of Lift Up Through Literacy, a Kalamazoo Public Schools program created to combat the district’s achievement gap.

The gap, characterized as a persistent disparity in academic performance between different populations of students such as racial groups and economic groups, plays out in many ways during a student’s career and shows in district-wide graduation rates. In Kalamazoo County, 89 percent of middle-class students in the Class of 2013 graduated on time with their class, compared to 55 percent of students from low-income families, according to a 2015 survey by Bridge Magazine.

Because literacy rates are an indicator of future graduation rates, attacking the gap through improved literacy is key. According to a 2010 Promise Alliance report, “Children who are not reading at a proficient level by fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school before graduating. Students growing up in low-income neighborhoods who cannot read with proficiency are six times more likely to leave high school without a degree.”

To boost literacy, Lift Up Through Literacy utilizes the most influential educators for children: their parents. But many times, these parents need at-home skills such as knowing how to read with children, how to discuss books and how to teach letter drawing, so the program works to provide parents with these tools.

“We’re teaching parents how to read a book to their children,” says Lift Up Through Literacy Director Barbara Witzak. “We sing songs in the newborn program, play games with the preschoolers. Everything is interactive so that the coaches are modeling for the parents exactly how they can work with their children to help devise some strategies outside of school.”

Paper pizza

At Skyridge, children, with their caretakers, are divided into three classrooms based on their ages: babies and toddlers in one room, preschoolers in another, and school-age children in the family literacy classroom, where tonight is Pizza Night — paper pizza that is.

On a buffet table are cardboard crusts and a smorgasbord of paper, “funfetti” and foam toppings resembling such things as pepperoni and vegetables, with price tags on each.

“They (the students and caretakers) can buy either a 12-inch pizza or 9-inch pizza. They have only $1 to buy all of their toppings,” explains Sylvia Washington, district- level coach for the program, as she puts out toy bills and coins. “They have to think about money and also dividing the pizza up into fractions so everyone gets a slice.”

Families fill out their menu worksheets with the goal of creating a pizza with the most toppings that comes in under budget. Above them on the whiteboard, the vocabulary words “circumference” and “diameter” are written.

The activity might seem math-heavy for a literacy program, but Washington — with 24 years in public education and 10 years in reading recovery work — says “numeracy is literacy.” Lift Up Through Literacy lesson plans “connect right back to what we’re teaching in the Kalamazoo Public Schools and to the core state standards,” she says. “We are connecting with the district literacy and math coordinators.”

Cedric Gunn, 7, dashes up to the toppings table, squinting at the price tag of each ingredient, then runs back to his father, two brothers and sister, where they confer, adding numbers together on a menu worksheet.

Lance Gunn, Cedric’s father, has been bringing his four elementary-age children to Lift Up Through Literacy sessions for four years. He lives down the street from Skyridge Church but heard about the program for the first time at his family church, Mount Zion Baptist, another community host site.

“Someone told me about the literacy classes at Mount Zion, but on a school night it’s much more convenient to walk to this church,” says Gunn, who doesn’t always have access to a car. “Coming here is something great to do with the kids to beat the heat. We all look forward to coming. The kids love to read, and it’s nice to talk to the other parents.”

“Everyone comes from a different situation,” says Witzak, who is emphatic that anyone can join the program, no matter their background. “We have sites spread out around town so that parents should be able to get to us even if they don’t have a car, and we provide tokens if they need to take the bus.”

Witzak, who helped start the program in 2011, says consistent attendance at the sessions is more likely to occur when there is a worthwhile incentive for families. To that end, Lift Up Through Literacy classes provide a light meal and child care. For families who come to all eight weeks of a session, there are door prizes, field trips and an end-of-session party. Additionally, there are make-up evenings to accommodate families with irregular schedules.

Program growing

The program has grown significantly since 2011, when it started with 35 families. In a 2012 article in the Kalamazoo Gazette, KPS Superintendent Michael Rice said the growth is the result of growing recognition in the community of the importance of literacy.

Last year, nine community sites — seven churches, Interfaith Homes and the Boys & Girls Club — hosted more than 545 families, in three eight-week sessions.

“This is part of an explosion of involvement in literacy in the community, and not just the traditional promoters of literacy,” Rice told the Gazette. “It’s churches, youth-service providers, community organizations that realize the importance” of literacy in academic and life success.

On a table opposite the pizza ingredients is a pile of books hidden under a sheet, waiting to be unveiled. Washington explains that each week each child “gets to pick out a book for their own personal home libraries. There’s fiction, nonfiction and math-related books. We try to hear children’s suggestions when we are making our next order.”

She has heard from parents that the free book program “inspires families to check out a wide variety of books when they go to the library.”

Next to the books, Linda Hawkins sits with her grandson Oronde Hawkins. “That make sense?” she asks the fifth-grader, pointing to the menu. “You’re 5 cents over, honey. You’ll have to subtract one topping.”

She points at the sheet-covered pile of books. “He loves the take-home books. He likes to feel comfortable with what he picks, not have me telling him what he’s supposed to read. He’ll read a page, and then I’ll read a page. I get to feel like a student too,” Hawkins saying, laughing.

The grandmother and grandson started coming to the literacy evenings at Skyridge Church after Hawkins recognized her grandson needed reading help. A friend at work recommended the program. “He looks forward to coming to these evenings,” she says. “He calls me the night before and makes sure I’m still coming to pick him up. He has fun and he’s interacting. His mom is too busy to come so I said, ‘That’s OK. Granny will do it.’”

Hawkins is a big reader herself, favoring Danielle Steel books. She says Oronde loves to read dinosaur and monster books on a tablet and to read before bedtime.

One classroom over, preschoolers and their parents are pasting together words. Tonyeaka Williams sits with her 4-year-old daughter, Coriah. This is Williams’ fourth eight-week session at Lift Up Through Literacy.

She brings all four of her kids and attends the evening literacy events twice a week, at Skyridge Church and at Stones Church. She can work with her older elementary-age children one night of the week and then her youngest, Coriah, on the other night.

“I want to prepare her before she starts school,” Williams says. “I didn’t have a resource like this when my older kids were getting ready for school. The parents had lessons on how to teach letter drawing today. That’s so helpful.”

Parent book club

Williams has also found benefits in participating in a newly implemented parent book club during the last 30 minutes of class. The group is currently reading Parenting with Love and Logic, by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, which Williams says has been instrumental in changing her parenting approach.

“Before this class, I was likely to yell when my kids misbehaved,” Williams says. “Since this class, I’ve been setting Coriah aside until we both calm down. I think it’s going a lot smoother than with my older kids.”

At the end of the west hallway is one more classroom, full of tykes ages 2 and younger and their parents. Parents, mostly women, hold their little ones and gesture along with a coach singing a nursery rhyme about words around the world.

Sitting at the edge of the singing group, Whitney Puente says she also participates in the parent book club. “I love learning other parents’ opinions, hearing what they’re going through,” says the mother of 16-month-old Emma. Puente is a special education paraprofessional for KPS who is attending Western Michigan University to become a special education teacher. She heard about Lift Up Through Literacy at work.

“I think not only is it important to play, do activities and work on life skills, but it’s really good for her to be in a group setting,” Puente says of Emma, who is an only child and hasn’t started going to day care. “I’m working on including her in on chores, giving her little tasks and also setting boundaries, letting her know what is and isn’t OK. These were great tips from the other parents.”

The hour-and-a-half session has gone quickly. Parents are now packing up backpacks, and children are making their selections from the take-home book pile when a tantalizing aroma fills the air. It turns out tonight is more than just a paper pizza party. Parents perk up and the kids cheer as boxes of pizza arrive. It’s a fitting celebration for the end of the session.

Emily Townsend

Originally from the Midwest, Emily comes to Encore from a stint reporting on the arts for The Cambodia Daily. You can catch her voice as a host (DJ ET) for Kalamazoo’s only feminist news and music show, Grrrlville on WIDR 89.1 FM at 8-10 p.m.

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