Valleywide literacy program expands to include workplaces | AspenTimes.com

Valleywide literacy program expands to include workplaces

John Colson

Claudia Santacruz, right, teaches an English lesson to Aspen Alps workers during a Raising A Reader class Wednesday morning. Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

For nearly a year, Jayne Poss of Aspen has been on a mission to help young Spanish-speakers improve their English language skills before they get to school age.She has been working with schools and families up and down the Roaring Fork Valley and all the way to Rifle since October 2004, using the Raising A Reader literacy program. The program offers bags of books to 382 kids at the preschool level, books they can take home and read with the help of their parents. After a year in the program, the kids get a library card that enables them to dive into the world of reading on their own.Now, with the help of two local lodging businesses, she has broadened her focus to the business world and a trial group of employees.At the Aspen Alps and the Aspen Square condominiums, groups of employees are taking home red canvas bags filled with books, reading with their young children and, in some cases, working hard themselves to achieve literacy in two languages.”The Aspen Alps and Aspen Square homeowners are to be commended for taking a leadership role in offering the Raising A Reader program to their staff members as an employee benefit,” Poss wrote in a summary of her program’s new directions.

“Their staff now have an opportunity to enrich the lives of their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews by carrying home each week the bright red book bags filled with beautiful books featuring appealing artwork, age-appropriate language and multicultural themes,” she said.In addition to the book-bag program, a number of staffers at the Aspen Alps are coming to work early several days a week to learn English from Alps employees Claudia Santacruz and her mother, Manuela Santacruz.Claudia, 17, was born in Denver and is nearly bilingual. She attends Aspen High School and is working at the Alps for the summer. She said she hopes to be a teacher some day, and the English lessons for her co-workers are good preparation for that career. And besides, she said, “they could help me with my Spanish. I’m not the best at Spanish.”Aspen Alps Manager Pam Cunningham, who was the first to sign up for the program, said she has known Poss for years from involvement in various community events. When she heard about the reader program, she said she thought instantly, “What better place to have the integrated component” to meet the needs of employees and their families than the workplace?She and Manuela Santacruz started asking around to gauge the interest of the workers.”I talked to the ones that needed to learn,” Manuela said, and the response was enthusiastic. She said some had been to school in Mexico but not here and at least one employee had never been to school at all. They all immediately agreed to the book program and the early morning lessons from Claudia, which requires that they come to work an hour or more earlier than normal.

“It is very good,” said Alps gardener Jesus Rivera, who joined the program in order to help his grandson, Alejandro, 2, learn to read and speak English. He said Alejandro now runs to greet him and search for a book every time he sees Jesus and that he has begun to use his newly learned English words when he rides on a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus.Esther Posada of El Jebel, who works at Aspen Square, said the same happens with her 1-year-old nephew, although he is still young enough that he crawls to greet her rather than run.”They’re happy they teach their children to read and understand,” Posada said through an interpreter. “And they’re happy they’ll learn right along with [the children].”Warren Klug, who runs Aspen Square, said there is a broader benefit to the community. He said his wife is a teacher and the two of them readily recognized the value of children being “launched successfully at reading well,” which heightens the prospects for a successful acculturation, education and life.”I think the most wonderful fact is that the employees love it,” he said.

Manuela Santacruz said she feels the programs – both the books and the morning English lessons – are achieving excellent results.”These people are getting more involved with their kids,” she said. “Everybody is very excited about the program.”And Poss is ecstatic about the expansion of Raising A Reader.She said she hopes to add another 375 valley children to the program in the coming school year and extend the program to Parachute, New Castle and Silt.”Our three-year goal,” she said, “is to have approximately 1,100 valleywide children involved in the program” in eight “target communities” in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com