Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2006

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Good Reading Habits, from the Road

When the "Gus Bus" rolls into one of the neighborhoods along its route through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, kids don't just greet the bus with a smile and a wave. They come running to the bus with screams of glee, says Pat Kennedy, Coordinator of the Reading Road Show.

The white bus, painted with an animated emblem of a rabbit named Gus sitting atop a stack of books, is the main component of the Reading Road Show, a program run by the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services at Virginia's James Madison University (JMU). The vehicle makes weekly and monthly stops in low-income neighborhoods and at day care centers, family child care providers, and prekindergarten classes. Kennedy and the JMU students who assist her invite children and their parents or caregivers onto the bus, where they sit on cushioned benches and read books, sing songs, and perform finger plays.

Children in the day care programs and pre-K classes receive red book bags each month filled with four books, at least one of which is bilingual. Spanish-speaking children receive Spanish-language books in their bags. At the end of the month, children exchange the bags for new ones.

The purpose of the program, Kennedy explains, is to promote life-long reading by targeting preschool-age children and their parents. Putting the program on wheels makes it possible to reach into Virginia's rural Page and Rockingham Counties and the city of Harrisonburg, where many Spanish-speaking immigrants reside. The bilingual reading materials help the children become proficient readers in both their native and second languages, Kennedy says. And watching her and the JMU students read to the children provides valuable best practice lessons for parents and day care providers.

"The Spanish-speaking community is very happy to have books in their native language for their children," Kennedy says. "We've become a real community resource, and we've become a trusted entity in the Latino population, which I think is important."

A federal Early Learning Opportunity Act grant helped launch the Reading Road Show in 2003. During 2003 and 2004, the program served 1,330 children--85% spoke predominantly English, 12% spoke Spanish, and 3% spoke another language.

Among the program participants, 46% of the English-speaking families and 68% of the Spanish-speaking families had never been to a library. Of the 38% of parents who had no regular routine for reading to their child, about half started a reading routine, according to a Reading Road Show survey. Forty-four percent of parents indicated they read to their children every day.

Due to its popularity, the Reading Road Show's services have branched out. The Gus Bus now stops at a homeless shelter and a local poultry plant where workers can check out books for their children. The bus also visits local community events, such as the Rockingham County Fair. Kennedy has acquired donations for books and materials for older children who visit the bus with their younger siblings. She has also started working with local middle schools to provide extra credit to their Spanish-speaking students who volunteer with the Reading Road Show to read to the younger children in English.

A second Early Learning Opportunity Act grant will add another bus to the program, expanding overall outreach. The grant will also pay for a full-time health educator to incorporate health and wellness activities into the reading program.

Local ABC television affiliate WHSV-TV3 has been particularly helpful in publicizing the Reading Road Show, Kennedy says. Last spring, the station helped raise $75,000 in donations to the program.

"I think we've branded the Gus Bus and the Reading Road Show really well in the community," Kennedy says.

Tuning In to Child and Family Issues

Hillside Family of Agencies has found the airwaves to be an easy way to spread the word about child and family issues to thousands of families in Central and Western New York.

For the past six years, the agency has conducted a monthly radio program called Hillside Family Forum, featuring Hillside experts on children and family issues, along with national experts, parents, children, and guests from the business, government, education, and sports communities. Stepfamilies, children's learning styles, dental care, pregnancy facts, kid-friendly foods, and technology and online bullying are just some of the topics that have been explored on the air.

"We work with parents every day, and we know it's a tough job," says Hillside President and CEO Dennis Richardson. "Hillside Family Forum helps parents deal with the most challenging aspects of raising kids today."

"Escaping the Fat Trap," a show about childhood obesity that aired last year, garnered Hillside Family Forum a prestigious Clarion award, which honors excellence in a variety of com-munication disciplines. Hillside Family Forum Coproducer Jennifer Bacci says she hopes the award will build the program's credibility and begin to attract sponsorship dollars.

The radio program costs Hillside $3,600 per show, including taping and airing on FM stations in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, on an AM station in Bath, New York, and on the Finger Lakes News Network--reaching an estimated 150,000 listeners and more annually.

Although the program doesn't air live, listeners can e-mail questions ahead of time. Hillside has an agreement with several Central and Western New York family magazines, which publish articles about the radio program's topics a month before they air.

Hillside Family of Agencies, which serves 7,100 families a year in 24 counties, has not only spread valuable information about children and families through the Hillside Family Forum, it has also better positioned itself as a community resource, Bacci says. Increasing numbers of people are visiting the agency's website and e-mailing with requests for help.

To learn more about Hillside Family Forum, visit the "Resources" section at www.hillside.com.

Laundromat Learning

On her drives home at night after attending graduate classes at Brooklyn College, Georgina Smith would often see kids hanging out at the local laundry facilities. Most played video games while their clothes spun away in the washers and dryers, but "I never saw a child reading a book," Smith recalls. "Never."

Smith, a science teacher, also noticed students in her classroom having problems with reading. "[I was] very aware of the struggling of my students technically,...they just don't like to read."

Armed with her observations and the goal to improve the children's skills and outlook on reading, she approached her graduate school advisor about starting a program to both meet a need in the community and complete her schooling. Her idea eventually developed into the Wash and Learn program. The program pairs New York City school teachers and Brooklyn College student volunteers with children at laundry facilities in low-income neighborhoods to help the children increase their confidence and enjoyment of books.

The program usually operates about three nights a week. City schoolteachers are paid as coordinators of the program. Students from Brooklyn College's psychology, education, and literacy departments volunteer their time.

"I think we need to recognize the children have so much potential," Smith says. "You cannot use a cookie-cutter program to help them."

Encouraging kids to read with the smell of detergent in the air and the humming of dryers in the background certainly isn't a cookie-cutter program. In three Clean Rite Centers in Brooklyn, where Smith established the Wash and Learn program, the tutors lead discussions, building much-needed vocabulary skills. As they sit around tables in the waiting areas, the children are encouraged to work together in "huddles" and help each other with the materials. Smith provides donated and purchased books for the program that are kept in crates at the centers.

With the help of volunteers and private donations, Wash and Learn has created multiple dynamics, Smith says. In addition to the tutoring support, the children, who participate whenever they can make it, help each other. Some parents sit in with their children, as well.

Wash and Learn has also proven to be an educational tool for tutors studying to be teachers, who often don't know what to expect when entering the classroom, Smith says. "With Wash and Learn, they get to fall in love with the children first."

Smith and her Wash and Learn partner, Amy Arnold, Director of National Operations, plan to expand their educational program to children outside New York by opening three sites in Denver this year. For more information about Wash and Learn, visit www.washandlearn.com or www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/index.php.


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