Editor's note: Literacy is the bedrock of our educational system. So when a community like Schenectady fares poorly in literacy, the whole community suffers. This is the second in a three-part series focusing on Schenectady’s dismal literacy rates and what the school and community organizations are doing to address the problem. On Sunday, we went inside a first-grade class and library program to show you how young children learn to read. Tuesday’s installment looks at volunteer groups’ efforts in the region.
A series of crayon-colored flags hangs above the interactive monitor in Lisa Bullock’s pre-kindergarten classroom at the Bigelow Avenue Head Start center: Sudan, Guyana, United States of America, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago and Puerto Rico.
“They’re for our culture,” 5-year-old Devin Ebert said during class last week.
“Sudan… Guyana… America,” 5-year-old Selena Etwaru recited the countries, stopping for a long pause between each one. She said she was born in Guyana.
The other students and assistant teachers started to talk about why the other flags were represented -- the students either came from those places directly or had family who had recently moved from them.
Another student’s dad had migrated from Trinidad and Tobago.
An impressive list of far-flung homelands.
“I’m from New Jersey,” 5-year-old Beloved Ventura said.
Around 40 percent of students in the Head Start program, run by the Schenectady Community Action Program and housed in nearly 20 classrooms at four sites across the city, are dual-language learners.
But they are all literacy learners.
While at the earlier ages developing the basics of classroom behavior and structure are critical, literacy skills are emphasized from the start. Kids at Early Head Start are constantly read to and given books to hold and touch -- and sometimes chew -- said Wendy Hopkinson, early childhood services director for Parsons.
As library officials work to bring people together around the goal of improving reading resources and outcomes, the early childhood educators play key roles in strengthening skills prior to students entering the school district.
There is a literal trail worn in the empty lot that connects the Parsons and SCAP childcare centers, both on Bigelow Avenue, to the back of Keane Elementary. Around the corner, a few blocks away, stands Lincoln Elementary. So it made sense that the organizations partner and, with the support of a Schenectady Foundation grant, they formed the Bigelow Corners Partnership in 2009. The partnership also includes home-based day care providers and the Capital Region Child Care Council.
At Parsons, kids from birth to age 3 are eligible for Early Head Start; they then move into the SCAP Head Start program, if eligible; and finally transition to the city schools.
While the partnership’s website hasn’t been updated in years, the group’s leaders of the different organizations said the partnership is alive and well. In the last year, the school district has adopted for its earliest grades the same student assessment tool used at both the Parsons and SCAP Head Start programs. Educators point to the value of using consistent measures along a spectrum of grades: it's easier to make decisions from consistent data.
“It helps to create a continuum of educational goals,” Abbe Kovacik, director of the Capital Region Childcare Council and a group leader in the emerging literacy effort being led by the Schenectady County library.
The early educators said they have data that show kids who attend Early Head Start and Head Start programs perform better academically than those that just start in Head Start at an older age. But they don’t have data that show how those students are performing in Schenectady schools by later grades. They would love to know, Hopkinson said.
Kovacik, who works on child care issues in five or six counties, said Schenectady had traditionally been well-organized among different organizations. But there is always much more to be done, and the challenge of fostering strong literacy requires constant attention and improvement.
And, at least at the Head Start programs, the demand from families outpaces the number of open slots.
At the SCAP and Parsons programs, the size of the wait lists approaches the size of the program. The Parsons Early Head Start serves about 112 kids – 64 at a center and 58 in weekly home-based visits. Parsons also runs Neil Hellman preschool, which serves about 75 kids, including many special-needs students. The Early Head Start program has a wait list of about 100 kids.
“I can’t get it down,” Hopkinson said of the number of families waiting for spots. “We don’t even have to advertise at this point, and it makes me very sad there are so many kids waiting.”
Adelaide Haberbush, director of early learning at SCAP, said the city’s Head Start programs also struggle to meet demand. That pre-k program, which serves around 335 kids citywide, averages around 150 kids on the wait list.
The school district also offers pre-kindergarten at all of its elementary schools, but four of them -- Paige, Howe, Woodlawn and Zoller -- only offer half-day classes, which are less popular for parents who work or otherwise find it challenging to find other child care options outside schools.
But even some of the full-day programs as of last week still had open slots. Engaging parents is at the top of the agenda for the early educators. And the main intent of assessing a student’s progress is to share that information with parents and help them understand the importance of reading and communicating with their kids as often as possible.
“The more parents are involved, the better the outcomes,” Hopkinson said.
As part of the Bigelow Corners partnership, navigators at Lincoln, Hamilton and Keane elementary schools and Mont Pleasant Middle School help connect parents to different social services and keep track of the progress as students transition from Head Start to district schools.
The early educators also emphasized the importance of healthy nutrition and sleep, physical activity and play. Even at that level, young kids can be said to be developing language and literacy skills.
“Development in one domain is informed by development in other domains,” Kovacik said. “You can’t take one part of development out. It’s informed by the whole child; it’s all connected.”
There’s lots of singing in Mrs. Bullock’s class. During circle time, which starts promptly at 9:30 a.m. and falls directly after “Hand Washing/Breakfast/Hand Washing” -- there are also lots of schedules -- the students sing about the weather and the day of the week and the alphabet.
“Today is Thursday. Today is Thursday,” the students sing as a collective. “The fourth day of the week. The fourth day of the week.”
“It’s how kids learn,” Haberbush said as she stood on the fringe of the class.
Other stories in this series
- How Schenectady first-graders learn to read
- Stay & Play a valuable program for families
- Library leads effort to target literacy from birth to 8 years old
- City to roll out elementary summer school program
- In Rochester and Providence, cities push literacy
- A look at other New York literacy programs
- Get involved: Child literacy resources