Lois Henry

Saturday, Aug 17 2013 10:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Help get kids reading! It's only our future that's at stake

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    By Californian file photo

    Rebecca Rojas, a Community Reading Project volunteer, quizzes 9-year-old Alex Jacquez about a book he just read at Munsey Elementary School in this 2005 photo.

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By Lois Henry

Yes, this column will have numbers in it and research and all that grown-up stuff. But first indulge me while I tell you how weirdly and intensely wonderful it is to have four little kids whose last names you don't even know, light up like Christmas candles when you walk into their classroom.

How you try, but fail, to remain stoic during the Pledge of Allegiance as they sneak gap-toothed grins in your direction.

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I like Shafter. They do some interesting stuff up there.

And one of the most interesting programs they've had since 2010 is a partnership between City Hall and the town's schools.

I like to check in and see how they're doing with it every once in a while.

Three years ago, the City Council agreed to put a big toe in the world of education starting with $250,000. The city hired David Franz to come up with ways to spend that money helping kids do better in school.

That's a pretty wide target, almost too wide.

But Franz went about talking to local educators and basically helping the schools fill in cracks.

He's gotten more books into the hands of families; worked with the schools to create before- and after-school tutoring labs; the city has helped fund a reading-intensive summer school program; it created an honors academy for top eighth-graders; a special math lab and more. Now the city is hoping to partner with the Kern County Library to center its tutoring efforts in that building and expand services to families and their children.

Yeah, that means more money.

The city is now up to spending $500,000 a year on the general program and is anticipating spending $2.5 million on the library learning center.

That's a lot of money, not to mention effort.

Is it paying off?

"We've had a lot of success stories," Franz told me. "And some disappointments. Not everything works."

All the programs have excellent attendance and anecdotally, they've helped, he said.

The tutoring program at the high school helped keep kids playing ball, Franz noted.

About 30 percent of the basketball team had 2.3 grade point averages or lower at the start of last season, said John Wiebe, head coach of Shafter High's boys basketball team.

"Which means they were only one or two grades from being ineligible. Thanks to the support of the tutoring center, all of them either maintained or raised their GPA during the season," Wiebe said.

Still, Franz and Shafter City Manager John Guinn acknowledged the city's efforts are more of a slow cooker approach: they won't really know what their efforts have produced for another five or six years.

"We do know that there's not enough effort being put into finding answers to the problem of getting more of our (valley) kids to the college level," Guinn said. "Shafter has done well from a business perspective but if our population isn't getting wealthier and benefitting from that, I'm not sure we've done our job."

-- Lois Henry, Californian columnist

'FIRST LOOK'

Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Volunteer training

Volunteers for the Community Reading Project must register with coordinators and attend one of three upcoming training sessions.

No need to sign up beforehand. Just walk in and give your information.

Training sessions will be held at the Kern Superintendent of Schools building downtown at 1300 17th St. in the conference room on the first floor.

Dates:

Tuesday, Aug. 27, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Aug. 28, 3 to 5 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 31, 9 to 11 a.m.

For more information, contact Teresa Twisselman at (661) 636-4645 or tetwisselman@kern.org or Rhonda Dickson at (661) 636-4649 or rhdickson@kern.org.

No, you're not bringing presents or cookies.

All you're doing is sitting with them for a few minutes once a week listening to them read.

I've been a huge proponent of the Community Reading Project for years, encouraging, cajoling and even chastising you all to join up and help kids learn to be better readers by third grade.

Well, last semester I decided to take my own advice and spent an hour each Thursday at a local elementary school.

I admit I was nervous at first. Frankly, I'm no teacher. And the people I spend most of my days around aren't exactly soft and cuddly. I, myself, could be described as more than a bit, er, hard-boiled when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

Me and a bunch of 6-year-olds? What was I thinking?

So, during the volunteer training session, I showed up early, took copious notes and studied all the handouts religiously.

If I wasn't a natural at this relating-to-kids stuff, I'd at least try to fake it with overpreparation.

What a pansie I was.

First of all, you're not set adrift with a bunch of kids and expected to "MAKE 'EM READ!"

The incredibly competent teachers involved in this program know their stuff. They identify who would benefit most from the extra reading time and set the stage with the kids. They pick books that they know each child can master, while still being challenging enough to keep their interest. And they're right there with you to answer any questions.

Plus, my teacher, Mrs. Miller, put the equivalent of gold stars next to my weekly notes on how each child did during my hour. (Who doesn't like getting gold stars?)

Ideally, there are four other volunteers just like you helping the same kids read on the other days of the week.

I say "ideally" because that's the single biggest challenge for this program -- volunteers.

We do not have nearly enough.

Which is a crying shame because, as simple as the program is, it really, really works.

The average reading proficiency growth for kids in the program is about eight months per semester.

That's a whole grade level.

And that can be crucial for children who are reading below grade level, especially in second and third grades.

If they don't "get" reading by the third grade, they fall behind at an alarming rate starting in the fourth grade, when the curriculum moves from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."

Keeping that fact in mind, here's a sobering statistic: Only 36 percent of Kern County's third-graders rated proficient or advanced on reading in the latest round of state testing.

Less than half of our third-grade population can read proficiently.

That's frightening to me.

It leads directly to so many other problems we have in Kern County, and the Central Valley: high rates of dropouts, unemployment, poverty, crime and on and on.

If kids don't learn to read well by the third grade, they give up. Once that happens, it's tough to convince them that striving for more and better education will benefit them in the long run.

So, stepping in when they still have a chance and giving them the extra encouragement and attention to get over that reading hump is vital.

But, frankly, as good as the Community Reading Project is, it can't do a thing without enough volunteers.

There are nearly 14,000 second-graders in Kern County. But only about 180 to 200 of those children are lucky enough each semester to get into the program.

That's because the volunteer base for the project has languished at 200 volunteers any given semester.

That's clearly not enough.

"It's a good program," said Della Hodson, a spokeswoman for United Way, which helps fund the part-time coordinator position for the Community Reading Program. "But you can't expect a significant impact in the county overall reaching so few children."

So, this is my plea, yet again: Grab your friends, family and co-workers, go through the orientation (coming up quickly!) and give one hour a week to benefit the future Kern County's young minds.

I promise it's easy and extremely worth the minimal effort.

Hey, if I can do it, so can you.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com

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