Literacy Programs Rewrite the Book

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The advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and first lady Laura Bush’s emphasis on literacy has been a good-news, bad-news scenario for after-school programs with literacy components.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CLC) program, funded at $1 billion annually under NCLB, has expanded the pool of money available for such after-school activities as literacy. But the extra money comes with requirements to help schools with their increasingly test-oriented missions, says professor Robert Halpern of the Erikson Institute in Chicago, which focuses on child development.

Promising Practices“After-school programs provide an opportunity to address all those dimensions of children’s literacy development that schools lack the time for,” Halpern says. “It’s a role that’s complementary to, but very different from, that of schools.”

But how does a youth program make literacy different from … well, just sitting around and reading? After-school time, Halpern notes, “is not well-served or well-used simply reinforcing the kinds of activities kids are increasingly doing in school to prepare themselves for standardized tests.”

Or as Carla Sanger, CEO of L.A.’s Best, bluntly puts it, “We have sucked the humanity out of our regular school-day reading program. Our job is to reconnect that humanity.”

Programs are doing that through hands-on activities like book clubs and reader’s theater, which teach literacy skills in an enjoyable manner. In Hartford, Conn., youth at Catholic Charities write music critiques, cover fashion and pen verses in a poetry club. In New York, youth at the Children’s Aid Society connect reading to fun activities like acting out scenes and making snacks based on what they’ve read.

“With reader’s theater, you don’t think you’re learning,” says Judy Nee, president of the National After School Association. “It’s predicting what would happen. It’s making meaning and understanding it.”

The challenge for youth agencies, Nee says, is “How do you do this stuff, where you sort of disguise learning?” Curricula are available from such organizations as the Developmental Studies Center (California), Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (Texas) and Foundations Inc. (New Jersey.)

“It kills me to see youth organizations, many of which are operating on small budgets, spending resources to develop their own programs, when there’s so much out there,” says Jane Quinn, assistant executive director at New York’s Children’s Aid Society, which uses two of those curricula.

Focus on Engagement

Funders recognize the need for after-school literacy programs to do more than just have kids read. The New York-based Robert Bowne Foundation, which focuses on literacy-based out-of-school-time programs, looks for grantees who take that interactive approach, says Executive Director Lena Townsend. “We don’t fund the skill-and-drill kinds of programs,” she says. “We feel that kids are getting more than enough of that in school.

“You don’t become literate in a vacuum. You become literate by being engaged.”

Around the country, YMCAs co-developed and use the KidzLit curriculum created by the Developmental Studies Center, which provides activities that go along with books used for “read-alouds.” The center and the YMCA also train staff on how to implement the activities, says Barbara Roth, specialty consultant for early childhood and after-school for YMCA of the USA.

The activities can include “field trips, putting on a play, cooking a snack that relates to the story, [or] trying out musical instruments,” Roth says. “Kids get immersed in the pleasure of literacy, as well as the skills.”

That’s the aim of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, says Catherine Jordan, director of the laboratory’s National Afterschool Partnership. She says the practices – “they’re really not rocket science” – include book discussion groups and literature circles, dramatizations of stories, writing projects, family literacy events and tutoring.

Foundations Inc., another developer of after-school literacy curricula, tries to blend academics with a youth development sensibility, says Darryl Bundrige, director of after-school and community education programs.

“The constant question for our staff as they go through planning is, ‘What do the students want to learn? How is what they want to learn connected to the school day?’ And, ‘Is it fun?’ ” he says.

“In after-school, students can learn in ways that help reinforce the school day without repeating it.”

The risk of repeating the school day is what has made CLC funding a double-edged sword, Halpern says.

“You want kids to use literacy to explore their world,” he says. “If all of your contact with literacy-related activities is in relation to these test-preparation pressures, you’re going to get kids for whom literacy has a much more negative connotation.”

Following is a look at how several youth-serving agencies try to infuse their programs with literacy in creative ways.

Ellen Lurie School
The Children’s Aid Society
New York, NY
(212) 567-5787

The Approach: The Children’s Aid Society targets the literacy aspects of activities that hold particular appeal for youth, such as comic books and computer technology, says Jane Quinn, assistant executive director. It partners with the Comic Book Project at Columbia University and uses curricula provided by Foundations Inc., and the Developmental Studies Center’s “KidzLit.”

At the Ellen Lurie School, a public elementary school, the after-school program funded through the society focuses on literacy three days a week for 45 minutes, says Carolyn Chin-Bow, community school director for Children’s Aid. “Our focus is on frequent, fluent read-alouds to children,” she says. “The research supports that when children hear fluent read-alouds, they acquire literacy skills.”

The youths then move on to “connecting activities” that develop “higher-level thinking skills,” such as acting out scenes, drawing pictures or cooking snacks based on the read-alouds, Chin-Bow says. Staffers are encouraged to incorporate their own ideas into the curriculum.

We don’t want to be limited by something written by someone nine years ago who lives in Idaho,” she says.

History and Organization: The society was founded in 1853 and runs 22 after-school programs at schools and community centers. During the past decade, the society has “really made a concerted effort to build literacy into everything we’re doing in these out-of-school-time programs,” Quinn says. The after-school program at Ellen Lurie has been around for 14 years, as long as the school itself, Chin-Bow says.

Youth Served: 300 at Ellen Lurie, which has 1,000 students. Most of the program youth are Latino, and many have been at school since they arrived at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast, Chin-Bow says. Since their days are longer than those of some working adults, “We need to make sure our programming is real vibrant for our kids. Otherwise, we lose them,” she says.

Staff: The community schools division at Children’s Aid employs about 675 people, only about 10 percent of them full time; the rest work after school and during the summer, Quinn says. The Ellen Lurie program has 32 people on staff, 29 of whom are part-time. Most have backgrounds in human services or social work rather than education, Chin-Bow says.

The program hires people from local universities, with degrees in sociology, psychology or education, with Spanish-speaking ability a plus and multicultural heritage even more desirable. “Training for staff is really key,” Chin-Bow says. “Some of them have their own history of struggle becoming literate in a second language. They’re great role models for the kids, but they also have their own needs.”

Funding: The budget for the Ellen Lurie program is “just under $1 million,” Chin-Bow says. Children’s Aid has an $80 million annual budget, about half from public and half from private sources, Quinn says. The major sources for the community schools programs are federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants and the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development.

Indicators of Success: Children’s Aid has conducted several studies of its community schools program during the past 14 years. The studies have found that seventh- and eighth-grade students who regularly participated in the programs were “significantly more likely to score well” on standardized tests and had “significantly better attendance than nonparticipants,” according to the society. School report card data show the oldest five community schools had 24.4 percent lower rates of referrals to special education programs than comparable schools from 2001to 2004.

But raising test scores is not the central mission of the program; rather, it’s promoting lifelong learning, Chin-Bow says. “Happy and healthy adults are not just people who are book smart,” she says. Children’s Aid focuses on bettering “the whole picture of a child, not just somebody who climbed the ranks academically. Not that there is anything wrong with climbing the ranks academically.”

Hartford Street Youth Program
Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Hartford
Hartford, Conn.
(860) 728-0117

The Approach: The after-school program run through the Hartford Street Youth Program emphasizes decision-making, teamwork, trust and conflict resolution. The free programming, offered at two middle schools and one high school, includes team sports, chess, creative writing, gardening and drama.

The three sites use the “KidzLit” curriculum to focus on reading, writing and related activities, says Aldwin Allen, director of youth services for Catholic Charities in the Hartford region.

“It has a variety of exercises that lead in to the reading itself,” he says. “The overriding philosophy as we approach literacy in an after-school setting is to supplement, not supplant” the regular school day. “We are not trying to change the world.”

These exercises and activities run the gamut. If youths seem interested in basketball, instructors “will have them do research on star players and write it up,” Allen says. “Journaling is a regular part of our programming.” Some youths participate in a poetry club. Others write music critiques and read them over the air at a local radio station as part of a show called “Kiss It or Diss It.” The fashion club researches and writes pieces about couture fashion.

The literacy component “is different from the school, in that it’s interwoven into the activities,” Allen says. “We call it disguised learning.” He adds that such project-based learning might not happen as much during the school day because of large classes or a lack of time or resources. “We’re able to create a different feel,” he says.

History and Organization: The Hartford Street Youth Program has been providing after-school programming since 1995, first at a local community center but increasingly at schools “because of the narrowing of funding streams,” Allen says.

Youth Served: The three sites serve 380 middle school students and 200 high school students who are considered at risk, offering positive activities in neighborhoods where the alternatives on the streets veer toward the negative. Catholic Charities recruits participants during the school day, including at assemblies.

Staff: The three sites have nine full-time and seven part-time workers. The full-time staff – all youth workers with bachelor’s degrees – provides academic and social case management services for youths, connecting with teachers and youths during the day from offices based in the schools. They are recruited from within other agencies that are members of the city’s Coalition for Children, Youth and Families. Part-time staffers are often recruited from within the schools’ staffs.

All receive training in curriculum, classroom management and family development. “We learn alongside the teachers different methods of delivering curriculum,” Allen says.

Funding: The Catholic Charities of Hartford reports a youth program budget of about $1 million, with most of the funds coming from state departments of Education and of Children and Families, the City of Hartford, United Way of Hartford, and the Hartford Foundation of Public Giving.

Indicators of Success: The Hartford Foundation provides funding for outside evaluation by Philliber Research Associates, which measures students from the two middle schools on a variety of academic and social indicators, comparing them with nonparticipating students. An annual report details the comparisons between those who do and do not participate.

Los Angeles, Calif.
(213) 978-0801

The Approach: L.A.’s BEST (Better Educated Students for Tomorrow) divides its After School Enrichment Program into “beats”: homework support, a cognitively based activity, a free-choice activity, and a snack (called half a beat). The cognitive activity can be literacy, math or science, says Carla Sanger, CEO of the citywide public-private partnership.

The literacy component draws from the “KidzLit” curriculum. Sanger says the center “has picked 100 books for elementary schools that have all the values that children need to come to terms with in their formative years. It’s about building good people as well as building good readers.”

Youth workers focus literacy activities on subjects that interest children, Sanger says. “The primary goal of the program is to foster a love of reading in kids,” she says. “The most important thing is making connections to the kids’ own lives. The kids are expressing feelings and their thoughts and grappling with big ideas, through conversations and drama and art and writing.”

“If kids aren’t plugging in, and eyes are glazing over, there’s something wrong with what we’re doing,” she adds. “If the kids want to digress from anything they’re reading, we let them do that. That’s where after-school has the luxury of time, to use the word as a springboard for kids’ growth and development. It’s not just about reading for reading’s sake.”

History and Organization: The After School Enrichment Program was formed in 1988. The free program, run for children ages 5 to 12 at 168 schools, is a partnership among the city of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the private sector.

Youth Served: L.A.’s BEST serves 26,000 youth from the close of school until 6 p.m., 246 days a year. All participate in literacy-related activities.

Staff: The After School Enrichment Program maintains a ratio of one staff member to 20 youth. Staffers attend workshops that include literacy training. For every five schools, the program provides a training coach, an activities coach and a curriculum specialist.

Funding: L.A.’s BEST receives $35 million a year from city, state, federal and private sources, Sanger says. About 75 percent of the funding is public, and about 50 percent comes from the state of California, including a “pass-through” of federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers money, Sanger says.

Indicators of Success: L.A.’s Best is regularly evaluated. Among the positive indicators, it says: Those who participate are 20 percent less likely to drop out of school than those who do not. As for impacts on academics, Sanger says, “I have years where test scores go up, I have years where test scores go down.”

YMCA of Greater Seattle
Seattle, Wash.
(206) 749-7576

The Approach: The YMCA of Greater Seattle partners with Seattle University to bring after-school programming to Bailey Gatzert Elementary School and Meany Middle School. YMCA staff members work with volunteer university students to handle day-to-day tutoring, workshops and activities, and bring in community members for special projects like painting murals.

The literacy component is infused into both the homework club, when students receive help with worksheets and other assignments, and tutoring, with an eye toward the state’s standardized “WASL” test.

“Tutors work on reading fluency,” says Hillary Case, project coordinator, who organizes volunteers from the Seattle University Literacy Project. The youths read aloud to volunteers, and write and read their own pieces.

The Bailey Gatzert project is run through the YMCA’s Community Learning Center, a free program for children in that school, says Angela Griffin, senior director of child care and community programs for the Seattle YMCA.

The program includes a reading library for parents, the majority of whom are immigrants, so they can read to their children in their home language, Griffin says. Families hail from Latin America, East Asia and East Africa, she says.

History and Organization: The Seattle University Literacy Project has partnered with the YMCA for 16 years; the Bailey Gatzert program is the longest-running, says Sally Haber, director of the literacy project.

The project works with six schools, she says. “We limit the number of schools we will work with, because we find that we can do a much better job of supporting our volunteers and working with people in the schools when we have a stronger relationship,” she says.

Youth Served: The literacy project served 1,405 youth at the six schools during the 2005-06 school year, the largest percentage of them at Bailey Gatzert, Haber says. “These happen to be schools that have children with a lot of academic needs,” she says.

Staff: The YMCA and the university handle staffing independently of one another, Case says. The YMCA has five workers at Bailey Gatzert this year; Case says they play a “disciplinary, task-oriented” role, “making sure kids are motivated, keeping kids on task, and keeping the room in order.” The YMCA recruits outsiders to handle specific projects, such as resident artists who lead such programs as African dance, Brazilian art and karate.

The literacy project had 281 student volunteers in 2005-06, and has 30 to 40 tutors on hand in a given week. The volunteers go through a training session that covers such topics as building relationships, handling learning challenges, practicing positive discipline, structuring a tutoring session, and demonstrating how to read to kids, Haber says.

Funding: The YMCA pays for its staff members and instructors who teach special classes, with 95 percent of that funding coming through the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Administration, Griffin says. The remainder comes through an annual capital campaign. Case says the university’s outlay is difficult to measure, because it consists mainly of portions of staff people’s salaries, including hers.

Indicators of Success: Griffin says she’s seen great strides among the children who participate in the program. “The children who come to this program are referred by the teachers for needing special help,” she says. “The program has been a great benefit for the kids. It’s helped increase reading and writing scores, and math scores.”

Griffin cites an increase of children reading at or above grade level, an increase in the rate of homework completion, as reported by teachers, and an increase in students participating regularly in class, as reported by teachers.