Raising readers | AspenTimes.com

Raising readers

John Colson

A program aimed at teaching very young kids to love to read, and to help children and their parents improve their English language skills, apparently is the success its organizer hoped it would be.Raising A Reader, a nationwide literacy campaign founded in 1999 in California, is expected to bring its bright red book bags to more than 1,300 children from Aspen to Parachute this year.That is up from the 391 preschoolers who were enrolled in the program in 2004, the year it was brought to the Roaring Fork Valley by Aspen resident Jayne Poss. Poss, with one paid assistant and a budget of about $258,000, manages the program across three counties – Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield.

And while it was initially designed for preschoolers, Raising A Reader now includes kindergartners from Crystal River Elementary School.Raising A Reader mainly involves the distribution of red book bags to students each week, which contain books in English and Spanish. The bags are sent home with the kids, and parents are encouraged to read to their children as a way of helping both the kids and the adults develop better English language skills.”We are reaching the toughest, most critical population from Aspen to Parachute,” wrote Poss, “low-income families, parents that are poor readers or do not speak English well and families with both parents working or a single parent working.”The program has been particularly well-received in Carbondale, where only a few years ago low standardized test scores were threatening to bring a takeover of the school by the Colorado Department of Education, in part as a consequence of the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation.Teachers and administrators argued that the problem largely had to do with a growing population of non-English speaking students who had difficulty with the English-oriented standardized tests.Raising A Reader is one programmatic attempt at closing that language gap.Although Poss started Raising A Reader for preschoolers, CRES administrators have expanded the program to include kindergartners.

“It’s all about kinder-readiness,” said CRES Principal Karen Olsen, who also is overseeing the school’s first year of a bilingual education program aimed at helping both Anglo and Latino children learn in English and Spanish.Olsen said Raising A Reader already has proven itself with preschoolers, saying she has witnessed “how prepared they were to learn to read.”Because the program is so new, there is no statistical evidence that participation in Raising A Reader makes students perform better on the Colorado Student Assessment (CSAP) tests.But convinced that Raising A Reader can help children do better in school, Olsen approached Poss about expanding the program into the kindergarten classes. She explained that because most Latino children had not been to preschool nor been exposed to intensive reading at home, she believed Raising A Reader could help both the children and their parents improve their level of literacy in both English and Spanish.”This was a stretch for us,” she remarked, because the school had no budget for program. So, Olsen raised the money through grants and some funding from the Roaring Fork School District.”She took it upon herself to go out and raise the money,” said Poss, noting that the program costs about $20,000 per year at CRES, or roughly $199 per student; the Roaring Fork Early Learning Fund that sponsors the Raising A Reader program waived about $5,000 in administrative costs.In a report drawn up for grant requests, Olsen wrote that roughly 70 percent of the 78 children enrolled in kindergarten in the 2006-07 school year were “second language learners,” with Spanish as their primary language. Of those children, 90 percent were found to be “demonstrating reading readiness” in what educators call Concepts about Print, or the ability to identify basic skills such as reading from left to right, top to bottom, and recognizing authors’ names.Using comparative data from another school in the district, Glenwood Springs Elementary, where only 38 percent of the students were second-language learners, Olsen reported, “They, too, saw terrific growth with their kindergartners in Concepts About Print.

“While it is impossible to know for certain whether the Raising A Reader program is directly responsible for the superb results,” she wrote, “we are certain that we are pleased with the results.”Parents, too, are happy with the program.Debbie Bruell, whose daughter Renee is enrolled in a bilingual kindergarten class and Raising A Reader, called it “a great program.” She said Renee is the one who, every night, asks to be read to from one of the books in the bright red bag.A side benefit for the Bruell family is that it “makes us all learn Spanish together.””It’s a neat home-school connection,” Bruell continued. “She [Renee] gets the special treat at school, but it’s a really good thing at home. That’s our cuddle time.”Aside from her family’s experience, Bruell said, “I think the most value is for families that don’t have that routine, reading every night.”Miguel and Laura Topete have enrolled their kindergartner, Michelle, in the program. Although Miguel works long days at a construction job and does not have many chances to read to Michelle in the evenings, he believes the program is helping both Michelle and Laura.

Miguel, who is fairly fluent in English, explained that Laura is not as fluent; he said the evening reading sessions are helping her improve her English language skills.As for Michelle, who was born in the United States and has been comfortable with the English language all her life, “I have trouble now getting her to speak Spanish,” Miguel said with a chuckle.Other parents with children in the Raising A Reader program reportedly have heaped praise upon the program. Poss sends out periodic surveys, and though names are not attached for privacy reasons, Poss passed on some of the comments, written primarily by hand in Spanish. The translation in italics was provided by Poss.”Es muy buen progama – ayuda mucho a los niños y papas a tener una buena comunicación porque les dedicamos un tiempo a los niños y ellos lo valoran [It’s a very good program – it helps children and parents to have a good communication because we dedicate time to the children and they appreciate it],” was one parent’s comment.”Gracias por darnos la oportunidad tanto alumnus como a los padres con motivarnos cada vez más [Thank you for giving us this opportunity just as much from the students as well as from the parents, for motivating us even more],” wrote another.Teachers also have embraced the program, Poss said, again citing remarks on evaluations by the staffs at area schools.”We read a lot more during the day and children chose it more often than any other activity we do … would rather read than paint!” was the comment one teacher wrote.

CRES kindergarten teacher Sydney McBrayer told a reporter recently that she and the other kindergarten teachers wholeheartedly endorsed the expansion of Raising A Reader beyond just preschoolers.”It really encourages families to read at home,” she commented. She said CRES kindergartners are given literacy tests at school, and the Raising A Reader students are quick to demonstrate their knowledge.”They know,” she smiled. “They’ve been exposed to books.” And in general, she said, the program seems to spark their desire to learn.”I think they’re more interested,” she said. “They realize books contain something they want to know. I think all kids are really excited to get the book bag. It makes them feel really grown-up. Any time you give a kid a book, and the family looks at books, too, there’s always a benefit.”Currently, according to the program’s national leader in California, Raising A Reader is in 170 communities across 31 states.”At any moment, 110,000 of those bright red book bags are circulating into homes across America,” said Carol Welsh Gray, founding executive director of the program in Silicon Valley, near San Francisco.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com