The idea of young kids reading for fun may seem unusual to some parents. But on a recent Saturday morning, a room next to the Rosa F. Keller Library & Community Center was filled with bubbly toddlers clamoring for colorful books while their caregivers sat in a circle around them, watching with amusement.
Jackson, a little girl wearing hot pink sneakers, handed an alphabet book called LMNO Peas to her father. As he flipped the pages, Jackson proudly pointed to the letters she recognized. Other children, all under the age of 4, played with wooden blocks and educational toys.
They were at the library for R.E.A.D. (Reading Enrichment and Development) to Me — a free, eight-week early literacy program available through the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA) and funded by the Junior League of New Orleans. Each class incorporates music, books and movement for children, along with support for parents.
"We all want to participate in things that are valuable to our health and wellness — mentally, emotionally and physically. R.E.A.D. is one of those oppor- tunities," said Elaine Looney, director of the Education Corridor Program at BIA and a licensed social worker. "With the funding from the Junior League of New Orleans, we were able to provide this, free of cost, for families that couldn't otherwise afford a class."
R.E.A.D. to Me is one of many programs throughout the Greater New Orleans area that help children, especially those from low-income families, improve their literacy skills. Libraries and bookshops offer story times and sing-alongs, while organizations like STAIR (Start the Adventure in Reading) provide one-on-one tutoring sessions.
R.E.A.D. to Me is run by Marilyn Levin and is based on her successful R.E.A.D. New Orleans program, which includes early literacy classes and kaleidoscopic playrooms for toddlers and kids.
"Any way you bring language into your child's daily life is important and critical to brain development, success in school and success in life," Levin says. "If you're changing a diaper, you can be singing a song or talking to the baby."
Levin's passion for learning and literature runs deep. She taught kindergarten at Isidore Newman School and launched the school's summer reading program. She established R.E.A.D. New Orleans nearly 15 years ago.
For R.E.A.D. to Me, Levin collaborated with Rachel Bowron, a speech-language pathologist and mother of a 7-month-old boy. She narrates every moment of the day to her son, to help him grow his vocabulary. During class, Bowron chanted the text from a large picture book, while encouraging class participation and conversation.
"Eighty-five percent of a child's brain is developed within the first three years of their life," Bowron says. "The more words they hear, the better their chances are for academic success."
R.E.A.D. to Me also provides an educational component for the parents. The instructors teach caregivers how to incorporate language and literature into their family's daily routine and model how to make the most out of a reading session. The parents receive a stack of tips printed on flashcards, a complementary children's book and a nursery rhyme.
Taking the next step
Other programs such as STAIR, established in 1985, help public school students develop robust literacy skills and positive self-esteem through free, private tutoring sessions. The sessions cover vocabulary, reading comprehension and phonics, among other elements of English.
"For 32 years we've been tutoring children in reading, one-on-one, at no cost to their families or the schools," says Veronica Reed, executive director of STAIR.
The program focuses primarily on second-graders, who are reaching a pivotal point of their education. If the students aren't reading at grade-level by the time they enter third grade, "then the outlook for the rest of their academic career is not so bright," Reed says. "We have the ability to change the trajectory of a child's life."
This year, STAIR will run 25 tutoring locations, open to students from more than 40 public schools in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa Parishes. Each site is staffed with experienced volunteer tutors. They work with the students for one academic year and become "an important adult figure in the child's life" by offering encouragement throughout each session.
"What we see is children who become much more confident in themselves, who are more vocal about what they think and share with their tutors," Reed says.
The children also receive a healthy snack, so that "their minds are ready to absorb," Reed says. They receive school supplies, a dictionary and books for their home library.
"We're always accepting book donations," Reed says. "We see it as part of our mission to recycle those books in the community."
Students include children of former STAIR participants, whose lives have become a testament to the program's success. One alum runs a day care; another is in nursing school. Some former students volunteer with STAIR while in college.
"That just shows you that a child can be struggling in second grade, but that should not define who they are as a student," Reed says.
Perry White Mitchell participated in STAIR 20 years ago, when he was 7 years old. His parents enrolled him to instill a "vested interest in reading," even though he was doing well in school.
"I wouldn't read on my own," Mitchell says. "STAIR served as the impetus for me to become a lifelong learner, and it laid down that foundation for me to want to read."
The Giver by Lois Lowry was the first book Mitchell read at his own leisure. Later in his life, he pored over scientific articles and biographies of men and women with flourishing careers.
"I enjoyed reading about those things, and it kind of guided me to where I am today," says Mitchell, who graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana. He's now a second-year resident physician at the LSU Health Sciences Center, focusing on emergency and internal medicine.
"Reading is essential to everything. That's the way that we get information, and you need information and knowledge to survive in society," he says. "If you start young and learn to love reading, then you'll be a lifelong learner, and that can provide nothing but the best for your future."
Read all about it
Toward the end of the R.E.A.D. to Me session, the children cradled plastic light-up candles in their tiny hands and sang "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Levin then placed a basket of library books in the middle of the circle, so parents could check them out.
Khloe, an outgoing 4-year-old with a ballerina bun, quickly grabbed one and ran toward her mother. After gleefully chasing bubbles and dancing to "Ring Around the Rosie," the toddler was finally ready to go home and hear a story.
R.E.A.D. to Me makes the learning process feel more like a spirited game in which books are simply part of the fun.
"With (R.E.A.D.), they can run around, but there's still some structure," Bowron says, noting how the children sing the "clean up song" while parents guide them. "We're giving these children a slight advantage over their peers with this program and getting them school-ready."