Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/fri/31024LITERACY2fpmb.html

Projects make reading a family affair
October 24, 2003
By Colleen Sparks

Almost a quarter of third-graders in Pima County can't read at grade level and if they're going to catch up, they'll need more help at home from adults who can read and write with them, literacy officials say.

"One of the big factors that influences if children learn to read and how well they learn to read is whether or not the parents can read," said Betty Stauffer, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Tucson.

"So often when people look at young children and getting them up to speed quickly, the one thing that often gets overlooked is if they don't come from a home where education is supported.

" 'No Child Left Behind' doesn't work if we leave the parent behind," Stauffer said, referring to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which sets standards for K-12 education and imposes penalties on schools failing to show academic progress.

About 24 percent of Pima County third-graders last spring failed the reading portion of the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards exam - a gauge of whether students are reading at grade level - said Marie Mancuso, deputy associate superintendent for the Arizona Department of Education.

Statewide, 23 percent of third-graders failed the AIMS reading last spring.

The numbers are cause for concern, Mancuso said.

"When kids are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, we know they struggle with reading and in all academic areas, which is why we believe there's a very strong link between third-grade reading achievement and the state's dropout rate," she said.

Students' reading proficiency can affect their future ability to fill out a job application, decipher a map or even look up a phone number.

Reading First, a nationwide reading initiative, says children should be able to read by the end of third grade. Studies show the education level of mothers in particular is an important indicator of if and how well a child reads.

In Pima County, many children face obstacles because their parents immigrated from Mexico and are learning English, they don't have time in between work to read to them, or they don't understand the importance of reading to them, school administrators and literacy experts say.

In Pima County, almost 23 percent of residents older than age 4 speak Spanish at home, the 2000 census showed. Of those who speak Spanish at home, 17.8 percent speak English "not well" or not at all, the census showed.

But parents can get help if they want it. Several programs aim to help parents learn to read and write or improve those skills and teach them to their children. Some of these:

* Literacy Volunteers of Tucson teaches adults to read and write.

* Every year Pima Community College Adult Education provides English language, GED and basic education classes to about 12,000 residents 16 and older, more than half of them parents with children in schools, said Greg Hart, dean of the adult education department.

* Libraries in the Tucson-Pima Public Library System offer free story times for families. The library also provides Project Literacy Involves Families Together, known as LIFT, in which teen parents learn how to help their children read.

* Reading Seed is a nonprofit group of adults who read with and to children one-on-one.

* Family Literacy Project is a national program administered by Pima Community College Adult Education, where parents in 10 different schools prepare to take the GED exam, learn English and computer skills, and help their children learn to read and write alongside them in Head Start classrooms. The program works with children as young as infants.

In the Family Literacy Project, which is in Amphitheater Public Schools and Sunnyside and Tucson unified school districts, parents must volunteer in their child's school at least twice a week, said Karen Smith, program manager.

"It helps parents develop the academic skills they need to be able to help their children in school," Smith said.

On a recent school day, Family Literacy participant Zulema Pereida silently read along with her daughter, Claudia, 7, in a second-grade classroom at Elvira Elementary School, 250 W. Elvira Road.

In Spanish, Pereida, 27, asked Claudia's teacher Suzanna Granillo if her daughter was filling out a reading chart right.

Granillo told Pereida, also in Spanish, that she should work with Claudia on reading comprehension.

"Her mom keeps her on track and focused," Granillo said. "They're learning it together."

Through a translator, Pereida said she likes the program.

"I learn a lot about my daughter in the classroom and she learns a lot about me," she said.

After working with Claudia, Pereida returned to a classroom where she joined about 10 other women learning English from Family Literacy teacher Jennifer Stanowski.

Since the program came to her school almost six years ago, Elvira Principal Mary Jane Santos said, teachers say the students are more focused in class and have higher self-esteem and grades.

Elvira's third-grade reading test scores on the AIMS exam jumped from 64 percent passing in 2002 to 73 percent passing in 2003, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

"I don't know of another program that is as significant as this one," Santos said. "The celebrations and testimonials we've heard from these parents over the years are just amazing."

Concepcion "Vivi" Ortiz, 28, honed her English skills through the program and now teaches other mothers how to use a computer to write stories about their childhoods.

Ortiz says she has learned how to better help her children: Saul, 6, and Viviana, 9.

Another Family Literacy participant, Liliana Corella, said last year it took her daughter, Danna, four hours to finish her homework. The 7-year-old's English has improved so much that it takes her only an hour to get it done now.

Corella, who spoke in Spanish through an interpreter, also said she is able to speak English well enough now to ask questions of her daughter's teacher.

"It's just helped me so much," said Corella, 27.

Elvira fifth-grader David "Alex" Contreras, 10, confidently read part of a story aloud in his classroom with his grandmother Lupita Camacho, 49, seated next to him. "I know a lot," Contreras said. "It's fun."

Another literacy program, Reading Seed, has helped boost students' grades, attitude and attendance, said Flowing Wells School District assistant superintendent David Baker.

In Reading Seed, about 150 volunteers, mostly retirees, read to children for at least half an hour once a week in 14 schools in the Tucson Unified and Flowing Wells districts, said Allan Tractenberg, volunteer coordinator for the non-profit group.

Several area school districts, including Flowing Wells, TUSD and Amphi, also have family reading nights at which parents read to their children or teachers read to families.

Flowing Wells' Walter Douglas Elementary School, 3302 N. Flowing Wells Road, has family reading nights usually once a month and also requires parents to volunteer at the school five hours a year, Principal Manuel Valenzuela said.

"The children benefit tremendously from reading to their parents, from listening to their parents read to them," Valenzuela said. "It builds their reading skills, fluency, and it helps to just reinforce the habit of reading and utilizing books for gaining knowledge and also just for fun.

"Parent involvement is essential."

* Contact reporter Colleen Sparks at 434-4076 or colleens@azstarnet.com.

To get help:

* People 16 or older who want help learning to read and write can call the Literacy Volunteers of Tucson at 882-8006 or visit www.lovetoread.org/. Or they can call Pima Community College Adult Education at 206-6508 or visit www.pima.edu and look under Community Campus.
* Parents who would like to improve their English reading and writing skills while learning to help their children in school can contact the Family Literacy Project at 741-7175.
Literacy facts:
* About 18 percent of people over the age of 15 in Pima County can't read or write well enough to fill out a check or find a road intersection.
* Nationally, of children ages 3 to 5 not yet in kindergarten whose mother did not finish high school, 61 percent were read to three or more times a week by a family member.
* 93 percent of 3- to 5-year olds whose mother had a graduate or professional degree or training were read to three times a week or more.
* 76 percent of parents served by the local Family Literacy Project last school year improved more than two grade levels and 78 percent of children ages 3 and 4 in preschool demonstrated kindergarten readiness by the end of last school year.  Sources: Literacy Volunteers of Tucson, The Family Literacy Project, the 1999 National Household Education Survey on the National Institute for Literacy Web site, and a National Institute for Literacy 1998 study provided by the  Arizona Department of Education.