Raising a Reader Initiative

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The Raising a Reader Initiative is a free literacy program being offered by Southwest Human Development at apartment communities in the valley to help children 5 years old and younger develop the skills they need to be successful readers.

José Cárdenas: According to Southwest Human Development, an organization that has programs helping young children and families in Arizona, children ages zero to five, 26% of Hispanic children are read to daily versus 33% nationally. The "Raising a Reader" program is a national model focused on children's critical development needs. Here to talk about what is happening with the initiative here in the valley is Laura Chasko, director of marketing and development, and Angela Capone, early childhood specialist. Both are from Southwest Human Development. Welcome to both of you to "Horizonte." This is a topic that's of great importance, of course, even more so given the current economic climate. But let's start by talking about southwest human development. It's been around for a while.

Laura Chasko: We were founded in 1981 and throughout that time we have really focused on the needs of our youngest children, ages birth to five and helping them get off to the best foundation that they can. So they enter school ready to learn and ready to succeed in life.

José Cárdenas: And it's a variety of programs, it's literacy of course is an important component but you do other things.

Laura Chasko: Right, we operate child abuse prevention programs and head start, mental health. Disability services and we do a lot of training of other professionals in the early childhood development field.

José Cárdenas: And head start is something you're in charge of. Angela tell us about that.

Angela Capone: Well I participate in the management team of Head Start. Yes, we serve close to 1,000 children ages 3-5 in our head start program here in the greater Phoenix area. We run rich developmental program for the children who come free to half day or full day of services and the other wonderful part of head start is the partnerships we form with families. Head start is not just for children. It's for children within the context of their families.

José Cárdenas: And partnerships include funders, Laura, and you've got a number of them.

Laura Chasko: Yes. In fact, the "raising a reader" program that you mentioned is funded by first things first. Which of course comes from the tobacco tax initiative. We are partnering also with the Arizona Multihousing Association. Who is not providing funding but providing space for that program to take place so that we can work with the parents and the children in their community. So we can go out to them. Which takes away a critical barrier for a lot of families.

José Cárdenas: I want to talk in some detail about the specific program, raising a reader. How have the budget affected your agency and your ability to provide services.

Laura Chasko: Several of our programs were really badly affected last spring during some of the budget cuts the first things first funding has helped us out quite a bit and we have funding that comes from local corporations and foundations that help us -- and individuals.

José Cárdenas: And for this particular program, how much are we talking about in the way of funding?

Laura Chasko: This program is about $200,000 this year. From first things first and from J.P. Morgan chase.

José Cárdenas: What does that cover?

Laura Chasko: This is a startup year so the program is a little more expensive. We have a lot of materials we have to purchase and we're putting the program together. This year, we serve about 450 children and families. In future years, that's going to go a lot further.

José Cárdenas: I want to talk about exactly what raising a reader is. Is that something, Angela, that head start is also involved in?

Angela Capone: Some of our head start families could actually also be involved in our raising a reader program. I don't know that that's true.

José Cárdenas: But this particular program is focused through your partnership with the Multihousing program. Did I get the name right?

Laura Chasko: Yes.

José Cárdenas: What actually are you doing? When you say raising a reader, what are you doing?

Laura Chasko: We're going out to these apartment communities and doing a few workshops in childcare centers and we do a series of 8 workshops with the parents while the children are also in there doing their own literacy activities and working with them on a variety of concepts, some of them obvious, like reading to your children regularly, limiting television time. Having a bedtime reading routine. But other things as well. Like incorporating language and talking with children throughout the day because that helps to develop their language and language is such a critical part of literacy skills. And things like activities and singing and making up songs and things like that. Angela's really our expert in that area and can also help to develop literacy skills. And we do that over a course of 8 weeks. And at the end of each workshop, the parents take home a big red raising a reading bag full of books that they can share with their children. We talk about book sharing, rather than reading, so that parents with low literacy skills understand they can also share books with their children and every week they come back and exchange that for a new bag of books and at the end of the eight-week series, they get five brand new children's books to take home and keep. And for most of these families they are going to be the only books that are in their home.

José Cárdenas: How did you select the apartment complexes that were going to be participating?

Laura Chasko: We worked with the multifamily association. Multihousing association and told them we were targeting low-income apartment communities.

José Cárdenas: And when the program is over, how many families and children will you have touched?

Laura Chasko: This year, 450 and future years, hopefully more.

José Cárdenas: And Angela, Laura said you're the expert. What can you tell us in terms of literacy programs. What can we consider early literacy, How young are we talking aobut?

Angela Capone: That's a really good question because I think sometimes people hear the term "early literacy" and they think we're sitting little children in chairs and teaching them to read. But it focuses on what do children know about reading and writing before they actually can read and write themselves. So early literacy is helping children develop a love of book and seeing enjoyment in a book. And to help children understand the story of their day, is an early literacy activity that they'll translate as they get older into reading stories in school and writing their own stories. Helping children engage in dramatic play. Dressing up as a fireman or as a cook and making a meal are all wonderful early literacy activities because through them, children are using language to communicate what they're thinking about. And using language to take on a role. Much like they read about a character in a book, in dramatic play they're telling the story of what I'm making for dinner and come sit down, it's ready to eat. Which is understanding the storyline in school. And all of the wonderful activities of early childhood where children are talking and singing and thinking and exploring their world and sharing their world an adult and going through the pages of a book, not necessarily reading the words but reading story that the pictures tell. Are all incredibly wonderful rich necessary activities to put a child in a good place when they go to school. I always say I have a mantra. I want children to have wonderful ideas, which is that they have to know the world around them. Then I want them to have the words that they need to use to tell other people about those wonderful ideas. Building vocabulary. I want them to know if they can think about it and wonder about it, they can read about it and that's in the pages of a book. And that if they can read about it, they can write about it. And when kids can do that whole sequence, they're kids who are readers. Who can master many more things in their lives and over the course of their lifetime.

José Cárdenas: Do you conduct tests to determine what their literacy level is at the beginning of the program?

Angela Capone: The word "test" probably conjures up a lot of things. We do a lot of observation of our children and interaction with our children. So it's not a test where kids sit down and do pencil and paper things, but you might be reading a story with a child and talking about the big dog. Oh, I see this letter right here. Do you know what letter that is? And the child tells you, yeah, that's the letter B. Or even if they say it's the letter S at the beginning of the word "big," it still tells you they know something about letters. So yes, we gather information by observing how children are handling the world around them that tell them what they know about early language and literacy skills.

José Cárdenas: Laura, earlier, we had on the screen, the website address. We also had the birth to five help line. If people dialed the number that was on the screen, what will they find?

Laura Chasko: They will find child development specialists that are well versed in a range of topics having to do with young children and one of those is early literacy so they can call up and ask questions about early literacy and what that might mean for their children. They can also call with behavior problems and health questions. Developmental questions. Feeding, sleeping, so it's a free service that covers that whole range of topics. And what they also get is an opportunity to really spend time with that early childhood development specialist. So that person isn't going to give them a list of ten tips of potty training for example. They're going to spend time talking with that particular parent about what's going on with their particular child and help find solution that might work for that family. So the average length of our telephone call is actually about 20 minutes.

José Cárdenas: And we've only got a few seconds left in our interview. Are the services available in Spanish?

Laura Chasko: Yes, they are.

José Cárdenas: Well, thank you both for joining us on "Horizonte."

Laura Chasko/Angela Capone: Thank you.

Laura Chasko:Director of Marketing and Development, Southwest Human Development;Angela Capone:Early Childhood Specialist;

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