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Read 'Em...and Weep

Local programs help children deficient in reading skills

The Pikes Peak Library District offers a Reading Buddies program, where teens listen to youngsters practice their reading skills.

The Pikes Peak Library District offers a Reading Buddies program, where teens listen to youngsters practice their reading skills.

Unfortunately, about one-fourth of our third-graders in Colorado Springs are not reading at grade level, local experts estimate. Those kids are struggling.“And if they can’t read, it affects everything else they are trying to learn,” says Gina Solazzi, executive director of the center.

So the center’s mission is single-minded: “We tutor kids who aren’t reading at grade level for free.” Solazzi adds that the program tutors about 900 children a year. Children can stay in the program as long as they are not reading at grade level.

The twice-a-week one-on-one tutoring lets the child and tutor get to know each other, helping the tutor understand how that child learns and what interests him or her. The child learns to trust the tutor and that’s essential to progress, Solazzi adds.

The program, which depends heavily on volunteers, attempts to reach pre-third graders because that is a critical point in the learning process, she says.
“We know the inability to read affects (everything from) prison rates to every economic indicator,” she says.

Volunteers get about 2-3 hours of training and a set curriculum to follow. One recent volunteer was a 15-year-old boy – a “graduate” of the program who wanted to help others who struggled like he once did.

The Pikes Peak Library District also is heavily invested in improving reading skills.

“We have three categories: incentive, practice and tutoring,” says Nancy Maday, children’s services manager for the district. Incentives are like the summer reading program, where kids earn prizes for reading. Practice includes such programs as Study Buddies, where local teenagers volunteer to sit and listen to kids read. And tutoring includes an online site (Brainfuse at www.ppld.org) where kids can log in and get a live tutor to help them with specific skills needed to do their homework.

Every program the library does – and there were more than 700 of them this past summer – is geared toward improving reading skills.

“Even if it’s a fun event, like meeting a llama, it’s educational,” Maday adds. “Then when they read about llamas, it means something to them.”

Additionally, the library’s “Every Child Ready to Read” program sends librarians out to gatherings – from mommy play groups to PTAs – to help parents become better teachers.

Maday tells parents who want to see their child’s reading skills further improve: “Don’t stop reading to your child just because they have learned to read for themselves. Read material that’s too hard for them right now, or just as a treat.”
Taking a more holistic approach, the Community Partnership for Child Development (CPCD), deals with not only reading skills, but also family dynamics.
As the overseer of Head Start, Early Head Start and the Colorado Preschool Project, CPCD primarily serves children from the womb to age 5, says CEO and president Noreen Landis-Tyson.

Adequate early childhood education is most lacking in low-income families, but she doesn’t necessarily blame the parents.

“Parents don’t know what they don’t know,” is her mantra. “Our mission is to tell them what they don’t know. We tell them to read to their kids long before the children can read. To have books in the house. To have conversations with their kids, if they are old enough, or at least to talk to them. To get them out of the house and have experiences,” whether it’s a trip to the grocery store, a walk in the neighborhood park or a library visit.

“We are trying to make sure parents have the knowledge and the skills to be their child’s first, and best, teacher,“ Landis-Tyson says.

While reading is “critically important to a child’s future success,” CPCD does much more. Classroom programs like Head Start will spill over into home visits, where teachers can help parents learn how to interact with their child. These visits also may help parents surmount barriers to learning.

“If they’re getting evicted because they can’t pay the rent, because Mom can’t find a job, we help Mom find a job,” she says. “At that point, reading a bedtime story is a pretty low priority.”

At any given time, CPCD is serving more than 1,800 families, all for free.

“Kids don’t come with a user’s manual,” Landis-Tyson says. “And not everyone has friends or family around to guide them. We can help.”
So can Dr. Barbara Swaby, a professor at UCCS who ran the reading program there for 35 years, who has done lots of tutoring, and now teaches others to tutor.
Swaby still sees students with reading issues, from mild to severe, specific to general. She does free evaluations of children brought to her, referring them to the program she thinks best suits their needs.

“I have seen the children of children I have tutored, and their children, too,” she says. She often talks about retiring, but instead she continues doing it because reading is so important to all of life’s other skills.

Important? More than that.

Essential, she says. 

TO GET HELP

If you or someone you know could use enrichment programs for their preschooler or grade-school child, contact these sources:

Children’s Literacy Center, 471-8672 or visit www.peakreader.org.

Pikes Peak Library District,
531-6333 or visit www.ppld.org.

Community Partnership for Child Development, 884-1410 or visit www.cpcdheadstart.org

UCCS School of Education, Dr. Barbara Swaby, 255-4526.