literacy hits home

Parents work to provide support they didn't receive as students

Dreysser Cano reads a letter he wrote to his daughter aloud to participants in a literacy workshop. (Photo by Scholastic.)
Dreysser Cano reads a letter he wrote to his daughter aloud to participants in a literacy workshop. (Photo by Scholastic)

For many parents who graduated from Scholastic’s “Rise and Read” program this month, the experience was bittersweet: They had learned new ways to support their children’s education, but they had also been reminded about how their own education had fallen short.

“I want to prepare my children so they don’t have to go through what we went through,” said Rafael Encarnacion, who participated in the program with his wife Nikiesha. “So they have a basic foundation. We want to show them the basics of doing well in school, keeping up and staying focused.”

Scholastic’s six-session Rise and Read workshop series aims to give parents tools to practice reading with their children — by handing out new books, but also by talking about everyday ways to introduce reading, whether through sounding out signs or reading along to lyrics of a favorite song.

The program is intended both for Spanish-speaking parents and native English speakers, and workshops are conducted in both languages. During for the workshop series that took place at P.S. 179 in the Bronx, which two of the Encarnacions’ children attend, facilitators and parents spoke a mix of Spanish and English, and all comments were translated so everyone could understand.

Encarnacion said that after he brought home new books from the workshop, his daughter began greeting him at the door with a book in hand — and a request for him to read aloud — when he got home from his job as a hospital orderly.

According to Windy Lopez, Scholastic’s director of community affairs, over 1.5 million parents have participated in Rise and Read workshops since the program began a decade ago. The workshop at P.S. 179 came out of a partnership among Scholastic, United Way, and East Side House, a non-profit organization based in the Bronx.

At the final session, parents said the program had given them tools for helping their children learn to read, as well as time to brainstorm new ideas for ways to support their children at school.

“I didn’t realize how many things you teach a child when you read,” said Patricia Gomez, whose two children attend P.S. 179. “I thought it was just a story.”

Cano's daughter with her letter.
Cano’s daughter with her letter.

Lopez said schools often leave that lesson out of their requests for parents to read at home. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, you need to read to your child for 20 minutes per day,” she said. “But it’s bigger than that.”

P.S. 179 shares a building with P352, a District 75 school, and several of the workshop participants’ children have special needs. Parents of non-verbal students said the workshop’s emphasis on finding creative ways to engage children with words was particularly useful to them.

“I have a son who barely speaks, but when we play music he tries to repeat the words of a song,” Rubi Garzon said.

Participants talked about the elusive line between encouraging students to read and pressuring them in a way that makes them less inclined to open a book.

One parent described her strategy: open a picture book and read silently to herself. “I start reading with expressions,” she said, and pretty soon her two children want to know what is provoking their mom’s reactions, and they join her to finish the book.

Dreysser Cano said that watching his daughter speak and learn to read in English, a language he doesn’t speak, is heartening and a little bit hard.

In a letter to his daughter, which parents were asked to bring to the final workshop, Cano wrote: “I want to tell you how proud I feel hearing you speak English, how fast you are learning.”

“I think sometimes it’s hard for me to tell you this,” he added, “But you also need to speak Spanish, because if you don’t I won’t be able to know more about you. How are we going to communicate? I know that I should learn just like you.”

Dreysser Cano's letter to his daughter. (Translation below)
Dreysser Cano’s letter to his daughter. (Translation below)

From: Your Dad

Dear Daughter,

On a day like today I want to tell you how proud I am when I listen to you speak English, how fast you are learning. I’m glad that you don’t look at this as something forced on you, but that you are learning through games and songs. It makes me very happy to see you sing and dance, and to know that you are happy going to school, unlike those first days that were a little hard for both of us.

Now, you are starting to write and I hope that soon you can learn how to read. I am anxious for you to learn to do this in Spanish as well.

Daughter, sometimes I think I am pushing too hard when I tell you, my love, that you should learn Spanish, because if you don’t, I won’t be able to know about you and we won’t be able to communicate anymore. I know that I should also learn, just like you.

You don’t know how far my thinking soars, at times I imagine you as a young woman full of dreams, capable of going after what she wants: obtaining an education and being able to use it, after so much hard work.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”